Not much more than a year ago, Laura Gibson’s New York flat blew up with all of her lyrics and instruments inside. Following the release of 2012’s La Grande and a train ride from Portland on the Empire Builder to the east coast to study in New York, March 2015 saw Gibson recovering and rewriting all of the lyrics she’d ever penned. Gibson had already written many of the lyrics for this year’s Empire Builder when the explosion happened, so this story of a woman thrust into a crisis, recovering her life’s work is probably not the central story of this album, with its patient, precise, particular descriptions, its small details, its grand themes of leaving, separation, absence, nostalgia and (in)dependence.
It takes roughly three days to travel on the Amtrak from Portland, Ore., to the East Coast. At a speed of roughly 50 miles per hour, the Empire Builder rumbles across the Willamette River and Columbia River Draw Bridge, past rolling hills and scenic landscapes. In theory, the trip gives plenty of time to rest and reflect, and for a calm spirit like singer/songwriter Laura Gibson, it allows her to pull from nature as it scrolls past the window.
Tragedies and trying times often inspire the best art. For Laura Gibson, the last couple of years have been particularly trying, and her fourth and latest album, Empire Builder, is undoubtedly the result of her recent struggles. In a nutshell: Gibson moved from Oregon to New York City in 2014 to attend grad school. Out of her comfort zone, she soon broke her foot, leaving her apartment-bound, and later that apartment burned to the ground in a gas explosion that killed two people.
This is very, very Portland. Think Laura Veirs (Not Harmless) or a less troublesome Joanna Newsom (The Search For Dark Lake is complete with swooping violins that sound like diving Chinese birds), while Two Kids’ jaunty two-step is reminiscent of Jenny Lewis. Gibson does occasionally fall into the trap of sounding a little mannered, and this can take away from the well-written songs and from lyrics informed by an interesting back-story.
Album number four from the Oregon native is a deft furthering of her folk roots and collaborative leanings. With input from Alela Diane and seasoned journeymen Peter Broderick and Dave Depper (Death Cab For Cutie), Empire Builder leans on their support and well it might, having been pieced together after Gibson's New York apartment block was destroyed – with it her instruments and her lyric books – in an explosion. Does it want for a little drama at times? Maybe.