Photo Credit: Courtesy of Abby Reutzel | Daily Texan Staff

Singer-songwriter Laura Burhenn began her music career by singing and playing keyboard for various bands in Washington, D.C. She started her own record label, Laboratory Records, at age 21 and is now the frontrunner of indie rock group The Mynabirds. The band released its first album, What We Lose in the Fire We Gain in the Flood, in 2010 and its sophomore album, GENERALS, in 2012. Burhenn has also toured with Bright Eyes and The Postal Service. 

After The Postal Service’s tour in 2013, Burhenn got in the car with her dog and hit the road again. She spent 2014 traveling across the country, twice, and touring solo in South Africa and Europe. She wrote music during her travels, and the result is a new Mynabirds album set to come out later this year. The Daily Texan spoke with Burhenn about her upcoming projects and South by Southwest performances.

The Daily Texan: The album GENERALS focuses a lot on the idea of revolution. What inspired you to create the album? 

Laura Burhenn: I was living in D.C. from ‘97 to 2008, and I was there on election night in 2008, and it just felt like a crazy time to live through in the life of America. I really just started feeling a lot of passion about wanting to make a positive change in the world around me. I started out making kind of a protest record, and I think you hear that in a song like “Generals.” 

DT: Do you have any new projects in the works?

LB: I’ve got a new record coming out this fall. I can’t wait for it. It’s a very different record from the last one. I was really inspired by what PJ Harvey once said in an interview — she said she makes every record with a different voice. I think that’s what I do with this record for sure. It’s a lot of love songs. I’m working on some sort of project to go along with the record as well. It’s going to be something like a small, stripped-down sort of experiential tour, where it’s getting away from just playing in clubs and instead going around to people’s living rooms and having those real human interactions.

DT: What would you say was the most memorable part about your experience traveling and writing by yourself this past year?

LB: I was really guided by this quote from William Faulkner. He said something like — and I feel like I’m going to ruin this — but he said something like, “You cannot swim towards new horizons until you have courage to lose sight of the shore.” To me, I knew it was time to move into whatever the next phase of life was. It’s almost like you have to completely lose your faith in order to find it again.

DT: What do you want to motivate people to do through your music?

LB: The simple answer would be — and it might sound so cheesy — but I feel like when I wrote GENERALS, and I got to the end, I said the final answer is love. I was like, “Shit, I can’t say that. That’s so dumb.” But it’s true. I think if I could inspire anyone to do anything, it’s just to love more.

DT: What’s your writing process like?

LB: The last record I wrote a lot in the shower and while walking around and taking my dog hiking. I would say this record was kind of the same. I would get in the car and actually turn the stereo off, and it was like listening to whatever songs the road was metaphorically playing for me. I do a lot of writing away from the keyboard and any sort of influence like that.

DT: How many times have you been to SXSW?

LB: This will be my eighth year. I took two years off. It’ll be nice to come back after a couple years off. I’m going to be playing solo. It feels nice to come to SXSW because there are so many bands. I’m going to come and say, “Even though it’s crazy outside, right here, right now, it’s just going to be us.”

Editor’s note: Some answers were edited for length and clarity.

From left, directors Cooper Roberts and Ian Schwartz and cinematographer Pat Scola have been nominated for SXSW Best Music Video for the work they did on artist Mr Little Jeans’ “Good Mistake” music video.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Ian Shwartz | Daily Texan Staff

Editor’s note: Some answers were edited for length and clarity.

Directors Ian Schwartz and Cooper Roberts’ music video for “Good Mistake” by Mr Little Jeans is nominated for SXSW’s Music Video Competition. Mr Little Jeans, the stage name of dance-pop singer-songwriter Monica Birkenes, released her debut album, Pocketknife, in 2014. The video premieres Tuesday at the Alamo Ritz Drafthouse. Before arriving to Austin, Schwartz and Cooper spoke with The Daily Texan for
a Q&A.   

The Daily Texan: How did you create the concept for the music video?

Ian Schwartz: It was a long time ago that we came up with this concept, but it was really open-ended from the record label. We were inspired by the lyrics. We knew we wanted it to totally have a darkness, and we came up with this trucker character. We wanted to see both sides of someone who’s a little bit tortured but somebody who we can see an emotional side of as well.

We had all of these meetings for the story and almost all the people that saw the video didn’t get it. They came up with their own interpretations. They had their own cool theories for what it was about. My mom had this theory it was about this serial killer who was dancing with the ghosts of his victims.

DT: Do you tell people what you intended it to mean, and does that impede on their own interpretation? Or do you just let them have their own story?

IS: It’s supposed to be an ambiguous narrative. It’s a fine line between something where people go, ‘Oh, that doesn’t make any sense,’ and something that people find intriguing and can add their own meaning to. That was our intention — to have this character not a lot of people have actual relatable experience to but somebody who has emotions and are in a place in their life that might be more universal. 

DT: The video takes place at a gas station. Were you allowed to just take it over?

Cooper Roberts: We searched all over southern California looking for the right truck stop; the stop in Victorville was the winner.

IS: Yeah, I think we went to every truck stop within a 60-mile radius over a week. The location was really important because most would be set there, and we wanted to find a place in the middle of nowhere without a ton of light around it.

DT: Tell me about the final scene with the trucker and the woman sitting in the front seat of the 18-wheeler.

IS: Yeah, that was an emotional scene. I mean, those women are supposed to be truck-stop prostitutes called “lot lizards.” But we wanted to subvert the idea and make them more like motherly figures to him. It was kinda a tender moment with the “lot lizard,” I guess.

DT: What are you looking forward to in Austin? 

IS: I think the last year, we tried to get into a lot of music showcases, but it’s really hard. This year, we were saying we’re going to try and see more films if possible, which is also hard. It’s really hard to get into things at SXSW — even if you win an award. We talked about going on a little one-day trip somewhere, maybe going fishing.

Editor’s note: Some answers were edited for length and clarity.

Two years ago, at South By Southwest 2013, someone stole Austin singer-songwriter Max Frost’s backpack. The backpack contained Frost’s laptop and hard drive, which held every song he had ever made. All of his music was gone, and he was left questioning his decision to drop out of school to pursue his music career.

About three days after the theft, the blog Pigeons & Planes picked up “White Lies,” a song from Frost’s SoundCloud account. The blog post started a chain reaction that’s still going off today. Over the course of the last two years, Frost has signed with Atlantic Records, landed a spot on Rolling Stones’ list of “10 Artists You Need to Know” and been featured on a Beats commercial. With his first full-length album set to be released in early 2015, Frost is returning to SXSW to perform four official shows. The Daily Texan spoke with Frost about his music and experience at UT.

The Daily Texan: When was the first time you performed at SXSW?

Max Frost: Unofficially, I would play shows in a band called Blues Mafia when I was like 15 or 16. That’s probably the first time I was playing during the music festival. Then, as an official artist, it was two years ago that I first played as a solo act.

DT: How did you get into music?

MF: I’ve always been interested in it. I played drums and banged on things and made noises ever since I was a little kid. I started playing guitar when I was 8 and started playing other instruments when I was 13 or 14 and playing in bands. I just never stopped.

DT: How long did you attend UT? Were you playing in bands at the time?

MF: One whole year. That was the first year when I didn’t have a consistent live gig with another band going, so I spent a lot of time in my dorm room just making songs on a computer and recording them and writing stuff. That’s kind of where everything got started for my solo project. I was living in Towers — the frat battlefield.

DT: So you left school in 2012 after your first year at UT. Why did you choose to leave?

MF: I just kind of realized I didn’t want to do a half-ass job at school and music and that if I was ever going to take a chance on it, the time would be now. To me, [college] just felt like a further extension of high school in a way, and I felt trapped. I felt like I was going to let the better years of creativity and youth slip away.

DT: What did you do after you left?

MF: I went to [Los Angeles] and spent the summer there with a friend of mine who makes videos. I worked on a lot of music out there and was still super underground. I just stayed in my room and worked on records, but, you know, it’s a good kind of reality check to what the business is like and how big the world really is. Then I came back to Austin and signed back up for classes. I went back for one week I think. After sitting in class again, I was like, ‘Okay, I can’t do this.’ I pulled out, and I stayed in Austin. I kept working on more music.

DT: How would you describe your sound? 

MF: I would say that it’s alternative pop. It’s sort of like my eclectic interpretation of a blend of Western music that I’ve been exposed to my whole life, and I’d say it’s sort of hip-hop influenced without being rap in any way. I would say that it’s also oddly — because of the acoustic guitar and how much Bob Dylan and Ryan Adams I listen to — kind of folk influenced, but I wouldn’t say that’s the closest genre.

DT: What are some of your favorite memories of UT? What was your favorite late-night study spot?

MF: I was always in the Towers seating group for the football games, and I’ve always been a football fan, so I’d say my fondest memories from when I was going to UT was just going to the games. That was always when the entire school was uniting to party in the stadium, and that was always a blast. I studied at the [Perry-Castañeda Library] or the Starbucks that’s right there by Fricano’s because it was close to Towers.

The eighth annual South by Southwest conference featured Johnny Cash, a Charles Manson controversy and plenty of “schmoozing,” according to a March 1994 article in The Daily Texan,  

In the article, staff writer Chris Riemenschneider gave a review of the 1994 SXSW convention. He called SXSW a place for record executives, journalists, musicians and public relations workers to “find avenues to sell their products or themselves; and, most importantly, kiss each others’ asses.” 

Cash kicked off the event with a keynote address. According to the article, Cash said he was interested in coming to SXSW since the first one took place in 1987. 

“It’s very stimulating for a songwriter to come to Austin for [SXSW],” Cash said in his speech. 

According to the article, Austin City council member Max Nofziger later gave Cash the key to the city and declared March 17, 1994, “Johnny Cash Day.” 

Riemenschneider wrote that panel discussions took place throughout the week, including “Alternatives to MTV,” “Why is My Record Not in the Stores?” and — most contentiously — “Helter Skelter.” 

The “Helter Skelter” panel focused on Charles Manson, a musician and a criminal found guilty for the murders of seven people in the ’60s. The panel discussed the newfound popularity of Manson that was occurring in the music industry at the time. 

Marilyn Manson, a singer whose stage name is based on the imprisoned Manson, attended the panel and offered an explanation for the increased popularity.

“[Charles Manson’s] anti-authority messages are things which kids can identify with today,” Marilyn Manson told the panel. 

Riemenschneider noted that the audience did not receive the discussion well. He wrote that panel members experienced hostility from audience members who believed the people involved in the panel “were cashing in on an evil man.”

One audience member asked, “How can stabbing someone in the back 65 times be looked up to?”

Aside from the panels, the article said over 500 bands performed SXSW shows that year. The 1994 event was the first to incorporate an additional component called the “SXSW Film and Multimedia Conference.”

Now in its 29th year, the SXSW music event includes about 28,000 conference participants, according to the festival’s website. The Film and Multimedia Conference has since evolved into two separate parts — film and interactive.

One aspect of SXSW has remained constant — the Austin Music Awards. The event takes place during SXSW and gives artists awards based on votes from Austin Chronicle readers. 

According to the article, the 1994 results “showed the rich diversity in Austin’s tastes.” Singer-songwriter Ian Moore tied with Jimmie Dale Gilmore for musician of the year. The Ugly Americans won best new band.

Although SXSW expanded to include film and multimedia events in 1994, the article stated most people were still there for the music. 

“It was obvious how important music really is in Austin,” Riemenschneider wrote in the article. “And no event demonstrates this more than the South By Southwest Music and Media Conference.”

Chicago-based singer-songwriter Andrew Belle returns to South By Southwest this year as part of his tour with Ten out of Tenn, a group of 10
singer-songwriters from Nashville, Tenn. Belle will perform on two separate days, beginning Mar. 14 at The Listening Room at Winflo and Rowdy’s Saloon. Belle said he hopes his presence at SXSW will allow him to reconnect with old friends, listen to some good music and have a great time.

Ever since his move to Nashville, Tenn., in 2009, Belle had secretly always wanted to be a part of Ten out of Tenn. His sister-in-law, a photographer familiar with local Nashville artists, helped him get plugged into the local music scene. He later joined the Ten out of Tenn troupe and was invited to perform with the group on its national tours.

“They really helped me launch my Nashville touring presence,” said Belle, who eventually moved back to Chicago in 2011. “All of a sudden, I went from no tour experience to performing on stage in front of hundreds of people, and playing in cities I’d never even been to before.”

With two albums behind him, The Ladder (2010) and Black Bear (2013), Belle is currently working on a stripped-down version of Black Bear.

“It’s going to have a similar feel,” Belle said. “But it’s going to be less ambitious. We will be reinterpreting the songs so that people who were fans of The Ladder and who weren’t fans of the Black Bear record will be able to listen to music that’s somewhere between the two albums.”

Belle said the Black Bear album title is derived from a personal experience he went through a couple of years ago.

“I had a very real, impactful experience with God and in my relationship with God,” Belle said. “I didn’t want to be confronted by the way I was living my life, and I felt like God was sort of pursuing me, much like an animal pursues its prey. So when I was writing lyrics for the song ‘Black Bear,’ the name just came to me.”

After discovering artists such as Radiohead and Washed Out between 2008 and 2012, Belle began dabbling in electronic musical instruments and found that alternative and electronic music presented him with more opportunities to experiment. During this time, he also continued to play in Chicago bars and restaurants, trying to make a living playing cover songs.

“I had a lot of new inspirations to draw from,” Belle said. “I discovered a singer-songwriter, Greg Laswell, who was a big influence on me and my writing at that time. I would go into work and I would be playing in bars for a couple of hours. I would use that time to work on new material and song ideas. I would strum these ideas, piece together the lyrics and would just play around.”

Belle’s interest in music developed in school when he first heard the band Counting Crows, but it wasn’t until college that he decided to do more songwriting and singing.

“One of my first stage performances was an open mic in college,” Belle said. “I didn’t perform very well because I got very nervous. I do wrestle with a mild case of nerves now and then since I’m not really a natural performer. I love songwriting, and performance is just a consequence of that.”

Most of Belle’s inspiration to write is borrowed from his personal relationships.

“Romantic relationships have been an inspiration,” Belle said. “I got married last year, and my marriage holds endless amounts of inspiration for me. My family and relationships are the most meaningful to me. Those are things that constantly appear in my music.”

Belle said he always approaches songwriting from an emotional standpoint. “That’s kind of what attracts me to music in the first place,” Belle said. “I just love having an autobiographical approach to writing lyrics. I’m a typical guy who is not super dramatic, but when I write, I feel a little more dramatic and emotional than I normally am.”

Belle’s songs have been featured in the television dramas, “One Tree Hill,” “Castle” and “Grey’s Anatomy.”

“I didn’t really know how to handle that success,” Belle said. “I had decided to keep living the way I was living, but then I realized with success comes responsibility. I’ve learned that I need to find my identity, which can be possible only through my faith in God. I’m learning to not put my identity into what I do for a living, because the minute it starts to go away, you don’t have a self anymore. You don’t know who you are anymore.”

The Basement Tapes: Elaine Greer

Indie folk singer-songwriter Elaine Greer and her band will be playing at Hole in the Wall this Sunday.
Indie folk singer-songwriter Elaine Greer and her band will be playing at Hole in the Wall this Sunday.

Singer-songwriter Elaine Greer’s light, airy voice, winsome melodies and slight country twang has earned her serious critical praise in Houston: She was nominated in 2009 for Best Female Vocalist for the Houston Press Music Awards. Greer, now based in Austin, has also opened for The Fiery Furnaces, Tilly and the Wall and Tim Barry. Her first EP, Making Plans and Going Places, featuring a cleaner mix of her breathy vocals was released in 2009. Her debut album, Annotations, will be released on June 30 and she is setting out on an American cross-country tour in July.

Greer will be performing twice on Sunday at Hole in the Wall for the Follow that Bird! Tour Kickoff, once as the front-woman of her band and then with local band The Sour Notes. (See weekend recs)

The Texan interviewed Greer and fellow band member and UT alum, Yola Blake, about their upcoming tour, latest album, recent show at Free Press Summer Fest in Houston and choosing a new name for their band.

Daily Texan: I know you have been going solo for a while, has that changed?

Elaine Greer: I have two projects going on. One of them is my solo project. I'm playing with a new band with a new line-up of people here in Austin, including Yola. There's six of us so it is kind of a big band. Then I'm also in the band The Sour Notes. I used to be in it a while back and then I quit that band ‘cause I wanted to focus on solo stuff but now I'm with them again.

DT: So for your solo project, is the band's name going to remain "Elaine Greer?"

Greer: At this point, we've labored for hours trying to find a successful "and the 'name' " but no one can decide on anything yet.

DT: Are there any nouns standing out to you?

Greer: There's been some potential. Which one is your favorite?

Yola Blake: I don't know because we shot everything down. We did the "yellowbirds" for a while...

Greer: There was the "daylights." There was the “killer whales.” [laughs] There's been like a hundred thrown around by our friends, saying I've got it. Our drummer said the “magnets.” [laughs]

Blake: There's the “sapphires.”

Greer: And the “pickles.”

Blake: I like the “sapphires.”

Greer: Eh. I don't. [laughs] See, this is why we haven't decided. [laughs]

DT: So how was Summer Fest?

Greer: Summer Fest was hot. If I could describe it in one word it would be hot.

DT: Was it a lot different this year than last year?

Greer: I think it was. It was pretty different. I played the first year that they did it, and it was way different because they had only two stages that year and that was awesome, I thought, ‘cause they had a lot of local bands and that was what they were pushing. Now it has become a really huge thing with all of these bigger bands and all of the local bands kind of get pushed aside a little bit more. It is kind of a bummer. But it was fun, I guess. I just hate being hot. If I'm hot, I'm never happy.

DT: I've seen you play and sing during concerts with other local Houston bands such as the Wild Moccasins and the Young Mammals – even when they were the Dimes, what has that transition been like, being so known in Houston and moving to Austin?

Greer: It was really frustrating at first, because yeah, that scene was, you know, you go out and everyone is your friend. The Dimes, we played together since we were in high school and the Wild Moccasins and I had a lot of the same band members. So it was like one big collective family there. When I first moved here, it was kind of depressing because I was like I don’t know who to talk to, what to do, I don't know anyone here. So yeah, that was frustrating for me. We were talking about this earlier, ‘cause I'm so excited now ‘cause I have a lot of stuff going on. I think it just took a little bit longer to pick that up.

DT: What initially made you want to make that move?

Greer: There were a few factors. One of them was a relationship. Also, I've lived in Houston all of my life so being in that kind of place where you go to a bar and you know everyone there, I guess I didn't really like that so much? I kind of miss it sometimes, but at the time, it wasn't what I really wanted. I didn't know what steps to take and what to do. I guess I wanted to move somewhere that had a lot more opportunity and more bands. Austin has been so inspirational. I would say that the main parts of the move were more personal reasons.

DT: What was the inspiration behind Annotations?

Greer: Basically with the album, I started writing songs whenever I was transitioning from Houston to Austin, so there's a common element to those songs, that feeling of feeling displaced and lonely and being unfamiliar with your surroundings. They are all songs I wrote when I first moved to Austin. The name Annotations I came up with is ‘cause it just reminded me of annotations of things I think about in life. Like going through these day-to-day activities and these situations that are really awkward or weird or uncomfortable and it's my little side notes.

DT: So the band is going on tour in July, what are some of the cities you are just so ecstatic to visit and play?

Greer: New York is always exciting. We're going to be playing Providence, RI, which I heard is really cool. Chicago. We're playing in Akron, Ohio on the Fourth of July for the Fourth of July bash so that should be cool.

DT: What are you packing?

Blake: Oh my gosh, we were just talking about this.

Greer: I was like I think I'm just going to bring all summer dresses and just roll them up so I can like fit 12 in there. [laughs]

Blake: [laughs] I was like I guess I'll bring accessories so I can wear the same thing every day, dress it up.

Greer: Girly girls on tour is always hard.

Lazy days and memorable nights — summertime is almost here. Whether you’re a lo-fi aficionado or an instrumental rock lover, this summer has plenty to offer for fans of all genres. These are our picks of summer’s most promising new albums.

Best Coast,
The Only Place
Release date: May 15
Genre: Garage rock, surf pop

Garage rock duo Best Coast will make their long-awaited return with their follow-up to 2010’s well-received Crazy for You. Best Coast’s sophomore release will keep in the vein of the fuzzy, lo-fi distorted sound that has become their trademark. Two singles from the album have already been released: “The Only Place” and “When I Cry,” and frontwoman Bethany Cosentino and multi-instrumentalist Bobb Bruno have still got it. Underneath Cosentino’s sob stories of unrequited love lie muddled and distorted guitars and drums — the perfect accompaniment for a broken heart.

Tenacious D,
Rize of the Fenix
Release date: May 15
Genre: Comedy and Hard Rock

It has been six long years since comedy rock duo Tenacious D graced us with their presence. Their upcoming third album Rize of the Fenix shows the group tackling the themes they have become infamous for: love, sex and food. Although band members Jack Black and Kyle Gass make up Tenacious D, the duo enlisted the help of Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl to contribute drums to the album. For those eager to listen to the album, Rize of the Fenix is already streaming on the band’s website.

John Mayer,
Born and Raised
Release date: May 22
Genre: Americana, pop

Singer-songwriter John Mayer has had a bumpy road in recent years. Two years ago, the artist came under fire in an interview with Playboy Magazine, in which Mayer discussed past relationships with Jennifer Aniston and Jessica Simpson in explicit detail. The interview only worsened when Mayer used a racial slur to address his African-American fans, a mistake that the artist has since then tried to forget about. Now, Mayer just seems to be focused on the music. His upcoming fifth album will be the follow-up to 2009’s Battle Studies. The only single currently available from the forthcoming album is “Shadow Days,” which has Mayer taking on a country twang while maintaining that soothing jazz-influenced vocal delivery he’s known for.

Sigur Rós, Valtari
Release date: May 29
Genre: Ambient Post-rock

Known for their ethereal sound, Icelandic rock ensemble Sigur Rós has been a part of indie movie soundtracks and college dorm playlists since their 1999 album Agaetis byrjun. Thirteen years later, the group will release their sixth full-length album, Valtari. It’s an album that will include “more electronic stuff than before,” as promised by bassist Georg Holm in an interview with Q magazine. The group will hopefully use Valtari to redefine their instrumental sound.

SpaceGhostPurrp, Chronicles of SpaceGhostPurrp
Release date: June 12
Genre: Hardcore-southern rap

Expect things to get trippy with this debut from A$AP Rocky producer and rapper SpaceGhostPurrp. To get a general idea of what Purrp may have up his musical sleeve, check out A$AP Rocky songs “Purple Swag: Chapter 2” and “Keep It G,” the latter of which Purrp both produced and rapped on.

Fiona Apple,
The Idler Wheel ...
Release date: June 26
Genre: Piano rock, baroque pop

It’s been seven years since singer-songwriter Fiona Apple put out some new material. After 2005’s Extraordinary Machine, Apple disappeared from the music radar, leaving fans wondering if the talented artist would ever return. This year marks Apple’s comeback as she prepares for the release of her fourth studio album, The Idler Wheel. Featuring 10 new songs, including the
well-received single “Every Single Night,” Apple’s forthcoming release will hopefully reassure fans critics that the songstress has not lost her knack for writing great songs.

It’s been a while since singer-songwriter M. Ward had some alone time. His last solo effort, Hold Time, was back in 2009. Now, having devoted most of his time to side projects She & Him and Monsters of Folk, Ward returns with A Wasteland Companion, a pendulum that swings back and forth between seeking companionship and exploring what has yet to be discovered.

Where She & Him allows Ward to live in a romanticized, 1950s pop world, A Wasteland Companion seems to show the singer’s uncertainty about romance. It’s luscious, and the instrumental arrangements are atmospheric and beautiful, a soundtrack to Ward’s journey into the unfamiliar. The first half of the album finds Ward searching for love: “But now I don’t know what it would take to make my heart back down,” he sings on “Clean Slate.”

Ward’s disposition is weary and realistic — he understands that the road to romance is difficult, reflected in his melancholic delivery. It’s sad, but the listener can’t help but relate, embracing Ward’s sadness as their own as they reflect on their own tragic-stricken love journeys. Ward’s song writing is great because of this. You can sense the honesty and truth in his songs, compelling the listener to continue on, in hopes that Ward will soon find his lost love.

The beauty of this album and its songs lies in Ward’s beaten-down spirit. The album’s title track moves with a sluggish pace, each staccato foot stomp conveying the singer’s exhaustion and strain. The mood is lonely and miserable, and although Ward sings about his friends coming and going, the listener can’t help but feel that the singer is disconnected from everyone around him, the music his one and only friend. Ward withholds nothing, and this is why his songs work. He’s so vulnerable that listeners are inclined to listen to every word he has to say.

Ward’s weary realism comes off as sad most of the time, but he’s not looking for pity — just hoping to find someone who’ll listen to his story, and may even share similar experiences. “Crawl After You” embodies that: “Oh should I stay here on this bus-stop bench/So strange to see you after all these years.” That feeling of seeing someone you once cared about so deeply, in such an unexpected manner, is something all listeners will be able to relate to, which Ward uses to his advantage. He lays his heart on the table, in hopes that you’ll do that same, and take from the experience whatever you see fit.

Those hoping for a She & Him sound-alike will be disappointed. Ward’s voyages are not as clear-cut as those he makes with bandmate Zooey Deschanel. There’s a complexity in his delivery — he’s ambivalent and unsure, not leaning too close to optimism or pessimism, but staying right in the middle.

A Wasteland Companion bears the weight of many mistakes and life lived, resulting in an album that showcases Ward at his most real and unrestrained.

Acclaimed singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen returns with his twelfth album, Old Ideas (Photo courtesy of Leonard Cohen).

“He’s a lazy bastard living in a suit,” begins Leonard Cohen’s “Going Home,” the opener for his latest release, Old Ideas. Talking to a fictionalized self, Cohen battles with his own thoughts and his desires to live a pure and personal life stifled by self-criticism. This is a world that Cohen is all too familiar with; embracing the bleak, but seeking redemption and insight along the way.

Singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, 77, has endured a long and difficult journey, experiencing the pains of isolation and depression throughout his career. These themes, accompanied by ideas about sexuality, interpersonal relationships and others, came to fruition in Cohen’s 1967 musical debut, Songs of Leonard Cohen. “And you know, she’s half-crazy,” somberly croons Cohen in the album’s opener “Suzanne,” as the vast, atmospheric arrangements paint a vibrant picture that is unusual, yet absolutely compelling. Songs of Leonard Cohen foreshadowed Cohen’s inevitable success, serving as the introduction to a man of misery.

Old Ideas, Cohen’s first release since 2004’s Dear Heather, is a testament to the self; the acclaimed singer-songwriter portrays himself as a man still beaten down by his own internal emotions, an indicator that even with age, our minds still play tricks on us. For those unfamiliar with Cohen, “Going Home” serves as a beautifully dark introduction into Cohen’s world.

“He will speak these words of wisdom, like a sage, a man of vision,” explains Cohen. “Though he knows he’s really nothing, but the brief elaboration of a tube.” Such lines reveal Cohen’s psyche; there is a wanting to be this man of significance and importance, but his ambivalence stops him from becoming so.

Although the album flourishes with orchestral grandeur and beauty, it is Cohen’s lyrical content that makes Old Ideas so powerful. The poet turned singer-songwriter in distress is present throughout the album. “I’ve got no future, I know my days are few,” grimly croons Cohen with a rasp that is ghoulish and frightening, the lone warrior’s testimony resonating on top of bluesy keyboards and body-shaking vocal harmonies.

“Amen” is just as opaque, the dark crescendos and morose atmosphere acting as the sequel to Cohen’s memorable and euphoric “Hallelujah.” “Try me again when the angels are panting and scratching at the door to come in,” Cohen sings dryly, the lyrics providing a morbid illustration of judgment day, with Cohen observing in the distance.

As Leonard Cohen collaborator Jennifer Warnes once stated, Cohen’s music is “the place where God and sex and literature meet.” Old Ideas is proof of that, with the album’s title veiling its true importance. How Cohen manages to stay relevant is through his vulnerability; he questions himself and his beliefs, and he is brave enough to make statements that are cynical, but memorable.

Channeling his beginnings as a poet, Cohen makes the album easier to digest for both fans and new listeners as he addresses recurring themes such as love, desire, regret, suffering and others, that most listeners have endured at least once in their lives.

At the end of it all, “Show Me the Place” seems to sum up Cohen’s struggle perfectly: “Show me the place where suffering began,” sings Cohen, a question the self-deprecating singer-songwriter is still trying to find the answer to. Until that answer is discovered, we can only hope that Cohen remains in the median between light and darkness.

Printed on Tuesday, January 31, 2012 as: Singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen releases 12th album