The blame for second-album slumps usually goes to the old notion that, while an artist has a lifetime to craft a debut, she has only a year or three to follow it up. Vashti Bunyan took a little longer than that -- more than three decades longer -- but her new disc, "Lookaftering," is worth the wait.
Her story starts in London during the swinging '60s, when she was poised to become something of a pop star. Bunyan had a hip manager affiliated with the Rolling Stones and a voice as tender as any ever heard. She recorded a single written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. She received good notices from music writers eager to find another Marianne Faithfull. All the pieces were in place.
Then Bunyan vanished, on a carriage pulled by a horse steered toward the idyllic English countryside. It was there, isolated and alone, that she wrote the songs for "Just Another Diamond Day," an album full of flutes and lyrics about the overwhelming beauty of glowworms. The record went largely unheard upon its 1970 release; now it stands as a canonical masterpiece in the annals of English folk.
It's tempting to read Bunyan's story as a post-hippie parable, but part of her allure stems from the fact that she sounds too timeless to be bound by any one particular era. Consider it fitting, then, that now -- 35 years into a future she couldn't have foreseen -- Bunyan is back on the minds of fans who wonder how she could have remained so obscure for so long.
"Lookaftering," made with help from young folk upstarts like Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom, sways with the sort of wispy folk air that threatens to dissipate in the barest breeze. The musical backdrop consists of gentle guitar, piano, strings and flute unadorned by anything but old-world melody. Bunyan's voice sounds slightly weathered by the decades, but her wavering coo adds gravity to songs written by a woman reentering an artistic world she fled for motherhood. In "Here Before," she sounds positively awed by a son whose gift she pays tribute to with the lines "Once I had a child, he was wilder than moonlight / He could do it all, like he'd been here before."
The whole album is almost eerily human and personal -- a spellbinding remembrance by an artist with no interest at all in erecting walls around the life she's lived. The music, sparse and stirring, helps. But Bunyan's vocal presence sets the mood by working its way into the weather of instrumental passages that yearn for her accompaniment. Over gorgeous piano in "Turning Backs," she finds a vocal pitch as delicate and fleeting as the sound of a finger circling the rim of a wine glass. As the album ends with "Wayward Hum," she simply murmurs a wordless tune full of blanks to be filled in. It's enough to make a listener blush for getting so close to something so intimate. It's also a warm invitation from an artist who sounds happy to be heard, at long last.