Miranda Lee Richards' fourth album, Existential Beast, follows 2016's Echoes of the Dreamtime by just a year, a quick turnaround for a songwriter who's gone several years between records in the past. It comes with a lusher presentation, too, edging deeper into psychedelic folk-rock while hanging onto a country influence and her distinctly Laurel Canyon-esque sound. It's also, at least in part, a protest album, with songs motivated by the 2016 U.S. presidential election, an inherited necessity for activism ("Ashes and Seeds"), and the killing of Cecil the Lion ("The Wildwood"). The title track, which she has said was originally inspired by watching a biopic about Nelson Mandela, gets at the larger question of how to arrive at peace. A slow-drifting rumination, it has organ, gently twangy guitar, piano, and spare drums under Richards' wispy vocal line. It picks up fuzzier guitar and, later, saxophone in the choruses but never climbs out of hazy contemplation ("And why must there be a wrong before right?/And why must it take so many lives?"). Songs like the ultra-trippy "Golden Gate" and bucolic "Oh Raven" are more concerned with self-improvement, such as learning to trust instincts. The closer, "Another World," though, returns to protest in an epic way; it's a 12-minute acoustic folk song that pays tribute to her home state of California while addressing a myriad of American political issues with all of the peace-loving presence of a Judy Collins or Joan Baez. Existential Beast proves to be a fitting title for an album that is very much of its time while sometimes eerily evoking the music and, sadly, topics of a half-century prior.
AllMusic Review by Marcy Donelson