“What is real?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”
“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but really loves you, then you become Real.”
“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.
“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”
- The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams
Laura Burhenn is admittedly “torn at the seams” and asks “am I real yet?” on “Velveteen”, the centerpiece of her band The Mynabirds’ excellent third album, Lovers Know. It’s a disarming admission of vulnerability from an artist we last saw in her “warrior pose” on the cover of the band’s last album, 2012’s Generals, where Burhenn was the “wolf mother” and, indeed, was “calling all [her] generals”.
Strength is a quality Burhenn has always sought to portray, something she discussed at length in her 2013 TEDx talk titled “The New Revolutionists”. However, as fellow singer/songwriter Rosanne Cash had expressed to Burhenn then about what “strength” really is and looks like – not appearing threatening, angry, or “mean” – Burhenn has evidently sought out herself to prove that acknowledgement of one’s vulnerability, disorientation, and shortcomings is as much or more a component of strength than tough posturing.
Burhenn wrote Lovers Know during an exhaustive period of touring Generals with her band, touring (and driving) solo across the US and as part of The Postal Service’s 10-year anniversary tour, and her mini “The Songbirds Tour” celebrating and encouraging creative women in South Africa. Accordingly, “Velveteen” is just one ripple in a sea of susceptibility and confusion wherein we wade on Lovers Know.
Burhenn’s transience during her album’s creation was undoubtedly conducive to much of her communications with loved ones having been carried out in text – emails, text messages, tweets, and so on. Linguistic expression is a theme mined deeply on Lovers Know, from the self-explanatory “Say Something” and “Semantics” – where Burhenn shrewdly observes that she’d be a fool to “think that [her] semantics could break any rules” – to her concession of “changing my diction” in “Believer” or the non-verbal assent of “Shake Your Head Yes”. Just as on Generals, Burhenn is able to bridge the gap of the universal and personal in addressing the miscues, misinterpretations, and breakdowns that occur between us at all levels of personal relationship.
Running tandem to Burhenn’s more heavily introspective lyrical content, Lovers Know is a drastic departure from the eclectic ‘60s-flavoured, soul-inflected chamber pop of Generals. Interestingly, Burhenn’s remarkable vocal dexterity that allowed her to jump tempos and genres so easily there is still alive and well on Lovers Know, yet embedded here in a dense synthpop milieu. It’s a jarring sonic change – one that takes multiple spins to accustom yourself to yet rewards in spades due to Burhenn’s impressive arrangements. The only significant quibble arrives in the album’s closing third, which is bogged down by a trio of slow numbers in excess of five minutes each.
Lovers Know heralds the return of a vital yet criminally unfamiliar artist to many. Laura Burhenn’s insistence on keeping off her creative laurels, dedication to her local arts scene of Omaha, Nebraska, and relentless pursuit of such “hippie ideals” of peace, love, and understanding (which she likely finds nothing funny ‘bout) are models to strive for. We’re having a baby in a month – if it’s a daughter, I know who I hope she’ll look up to.