Accessibility and exclusivity are by turns peddled as a measure of value when the agenda dictates. Often, when Laurie Anderson's music finds favor with critics, it's the former they praise. Arguably, her work has always been approachable. It may not adhere to common structures, and often employs innovative resources for achieving original sounds. But at its core, her music has always been so warm, so human, and often so very funny that it never feels exclusive. Now in her fourth decade as a recording artist, she presents the album of a lifetime -- well, of one of them. Landfall pairs nicely with Big Science and Homeland as a concluding work in a trilogy of indefatigable imagination and compassion. Always adept at conjuring past, present, and future as if time flexes at her touch, those records share an underlying sense of doom, tempered by a healthy dose of the absurd and nods to the tragi-comic nature of collective existential dread.
Her chief inspiration this time around was Hurricane Sandy and the things she lost in the flood. And this record sees her collaborate with the inimitable Kronos Quartet, who lend their exquisite string work to an album epic in scale and reach. Musically, the record navigates an uneven terrain with a fluid combination of acoustic instrumentation and electronic flashes that conjure a landscape both devastating and curiously fascinating. At this part of her career, Anderson remains as intrepid a sonic adventurer as ever. "Never What You Think It Will Be" embraces the very best of what electronic music can do, and it's electrifying in a way that most artists half her age can't muster. "Dawn of the World" is as much an experiment in agitation and anxiety as it is a song, and tracks like "We Head Out" feed into the record's sustained suspense, built on the metronomic ticks that pervade it, often scarcely detectable but quietly building tension nonetheless.
Since her first single, "O Superman," and subsequent decades of innovation and experimentation, she has emitted a calm and measured air. It's not that the compositions aren't often thrilling and full of drama, it's just that her response is anything but histrionic. This is particularly true of her trademark spoken-word delivery. It's most curious, powerful, and affecting toward the end of the record where she recalls her flooded basement and ruined belongings and remembers, "I thought how beautiful/how magic/and how catastrophic."
It's impossible to know whether some of the loss evoked on the record is a response to the death of her husband Lou Reed in 2013, but one suspects the elegiac reflections extend beyond ruined keyboards and props: while it may be inspired by Sandy's fallout, Landfall's reach runs to a sea of loss, chaos, and confusion. It's an elemental mystery of quietly epic proportions made exceptional through clarity of thought and feeling.