It seems very strange that Watershed is the first album of new -- as in self-penned -- material by kd lang in nearly seven years. Her last full-length, Hymns of the 49th Parallel, was a collection covers by fellow Canadians in 2004, and a compilation assembled from her country albums. Watershed also lists lang as producer, another first for the singer and songwriter. There are 11 songs here, including the beautiful single "Dream of Spring," that was released in December of 2007 and kicks off the set. There is a core band here that revolves around old friends Teddy Borowiecki (who not only plays organ, guitar, arranges strings, and does some programming, but also provides additional production in places), steel guitarist Greg Leisz, drummer Danny Frankel, bassist David Piltch (who also does some additional production), and some guests who include Ben Mink, trumpeter Jon Hassel, and Lynne Earls, who is also the recording engineer here. Lang plays guitars, banjo, piano, and assorted keyboards. There are bits and pieces of all of lang's best albums here. There is the elegance of Ingenue, the lush, restrained drama of Drag, and the earthiness of Shadowland with the contentment and joy of Invincible Summer. The songs are assembled as a sort of narrative. "Dream of Spring" opens with bluesy guitar, bass, and a drum loop that becomes a shimmering torch song with pedal steel guitar on its refrain. Lang's voice glides into a near swoon of longing from a reportorial, almost philosophical observation of places she'd inhabited before allowing herself to enter love openly and freely. The strings add a lushness that's in stark contrast with the steel, but it all works. While the song is sexy as all get out, there is a spiritual quotient in it; it's not enmeshed or entrenched. It's not desperate -- unlike some of the more blessed-out dream anthems on Ingenue.
"Comin Home" opens with a sparse, slightly jaunty pluck of strings, and lang simply croons right into them: "Oh, sweet sorrow/Let's write the book tomorrow/For I caught a glimpse/Been obsessed with it ever since/My eyes no longer weak amongst the clarity that you pronounce in me..." This is an homage, and perhaps even a love song, but it's a platonic one that is spiritual in nature, whose tenets are very close to the eight worldly dharmas in Tibetan Buddhism. Noam Pikelny's banjo adds a nice dimension to this track, adding itself to the growing presence of strings, simple percussion, Leisz's pedal steel, and a dreaminess that is rooted in the everyday life of what illumination looks like when it is as apparent as the blue of the sky. "Once in a While" is among the most straightforward and ultimately sane love songs to ever come from the tip of lang's pen. The wonderful chorus of backing vocals (all hers), with a simple drum loop, an array of guitars, and an underpinning bassline that glides rather than weights the tune through its changes. "Thread" certainly touches on the feel of the best material from Ingenue, and strangely enough, though it is basically a spiritual song, it's sparser than almost anything here -- and certainly more so than on her former album.
There is a small problem with Watershed (though on close reflection it reveals itself to be one of initial perception more than an actual flaw). Despite its wonderfully relaxed feel, an expert use of dynamics in individual songs, and the expert way of slotting different instrumental and stylistic elements next to one another and erasing the seams; it's that by about track six, "Close Your Eyes," the album seems to bleed into a whole, where the mood is so laid-back it makes one song more or less indistinguishable from another -- unless you are listening very closely. At under 39 minutes, it can simply go by you in a slow, dissolving blur. One reason is that lang doesn't stretch vocally the way she has in the past; there is a restraint in her vocalizing that is refreshing because nowhere does she over-emote and allow her natural mode of expression to handle the words, and she inflects enough heart (and only enough) to get the song across: she's not selling it, she's presenting it to the listener. That's new. She has a more disciplined approach to singing that's very attractive, but it is very different; one may mistake it for a kind of laziness on her part. On closer inspection, however, one can hear all the exceptions in these songs that prove this initial notion false. There's the single, of course, and the utterly steamy, jazzy, "Sunday," that feels like an afternoon of lovemaking; Borowiecki's vibraphone resembles Cal Tjader's light touch on the instrument, and the lithe, sinewy keyboard lines that intertwine and even embrace Piltch's basslines (acoustic and electric) are wan and hungry at once. "Flame of the Uninspired" is one place where lang allows her voice to go into its more readily expressive mode, and it's because the tune warrants it. "Shadow and the Frame" is a string heavy ballad where arrangement, and lang's harp (the classical one), bring that notion of travel, distance, reflection, and loneliness to the fore, but the words reveal something very different. Ultimately, it's simply that the sound on Watershed is defined, elemental to its songs. It carries itself with dignity and sensuality, and a sense of balance that none of her previous records have been able to achieve. It's a fine return for the artist, an album she will most likely be proud of years from now. Many of her fans will no doubt be delighted with this artful yet accessible return, and hopefully, those who embraced the younger, wackier, campy aspect of lang's persona will allow for the fact that there isn't anything close to that here. The overachiever has left the building; the seasoned artist remains.