As Mirabelle, Laurence Hélie creates beautiful, expansive sonic territories that prove to be fertile ground for both discovery and self-reflection.
When Laurence Hélie last put out a record (2013’s À présent le passé), the world was a different place and she was a different artist. A beautiful record of Francophone folk/country songs, À présent le passé nevertheless marked a departure for Hélie — the conclusion of a cycle. So much so that when she began to work on new material, her chosen genre felt strangely alien to her, and new songs never came. Resigned, Hélie stopped singing, ceased strumming, and began to think she was done with the whole fickle business. Thankfully, the closing of one cycle led to the start of something else. Creative stasis can be a demoralizing, destabilizing thing for artists of any discipline to go through. But any kind of change worth making demands this period of struggle, rejection, recalibration, and transition because ultimately, the metamorphosis is all the more beautiful.
The story of Hélie eventually re-aligning her creative focus under the name Mirabelle to craft the songs that would make up Late Bloomer recalls the story that led to a career-defining record by another Canadian singer-songwriter. As described in a recent re-evaluation of Fumbling Towards Ecstasy, Sarah McLachlan longed to break away from the rigidity of her previous work with her third album. As the sessions progressed, she struggled to capture the new direction she knew was stirring inside. Eventually — with the help of a sojourn into the Laurentians, a free-association journal, a willing producer, the rejuvenation that comes with the spring thaw, and, of course, Mark Hollis — McLachlan emerged from her creative stasis with the most beautiful, unique, well-constructed songs of her career. For Hélie, Late Bloomer is a similar effort with similar results: it’s the sound of someone looking inside and re-discovering what’s already there in an attempt to express something else entirely.
If you’ve listened to À présent le passé, the stylistic shift Late Bloomer displays is something to behold. Whereas Hélie’s music was once bright, featherlight, and surrounded by an idyllic folk shimmer, her debut as Mirabelle is darker, nuanced, brooding, and atmospheric. The rustic, soothing instrumentals of her previous releases are replaced by unpredictable arrangements, layered synths, a bevy of different guitar and drum sounds, and sparse electronic textures that percolate through the velvety wash of Hélie’s gorgeous vocals.
Not unlike McLachlan did with Fumbling, Hélie chose to work with collaborators who could help her transcend the familiar. Co-producer and multi-instrumentalist Warren C. Spicer (Plants and Animals), drummer Matthew Woodley (Plants and Animals) and Christophe Lamarche-Ledoux (Organ Mood, Chocolat) on synths help to create expansive sonic territories where Hélie can experiment and work her bilingual vocal magic. The results are diverse and, more often than not, impressive. “Phénomène” is structured simply, but builds beautifully; the interplay of synth sounds, driving 4/4 drums, and Hélie’s dreamy earworm of a chorus is an immediate and satisfying combo. This driving, straightforward style finds an equally satisfying home on the energetic “Teenage Dreams”. But it’s the mid-album duo of “Wall” and “Rose White” where Late Bloomer’s formula pays off most. The former lulls the listener into a state of bliss with Hélie’s airy, layered vocal lines, gentle acoustic guitars, and muted kick pattern, before breaking a lush chorus that subtly taps into Tame Impala-like psychedelia. The latter begins in the throes of a dream-pop melodrama before the drums emerge from a wall of synths and carry the song off in a languid, uneasy groove. Through it all, Hélie’s dynamic vocals lose none of their lustre; the heightened emotion and fluidity of her delivery feels effortless.
Of course, artistic transformation is rarely reduced solely to the presentation and the arrangement of the art in question. Creating under a new mindset and with fresh ears usually goes hand in hand with seeing the world — and one’s place in it — differently. As a result, Late Bloomer is awash with explorations of change, transition, nostalgia, loss, and regret. Over the punchy, textured grooves of “Betty”, Hélie wrestles with how to undergo a personal transformation while staying honest with herself along the way. It’s a type of introspection that requires looking back and questioning who we thought we were, who we are now, and reconciling with that duality. This comes to light on the opener “One in a Million” (“ I was young some time ago, now I don’t know I was wrong to abandon the ship, to let it sink, I was wrong, now I know”) and on “Teenage Dreams” (“Iʼd love to tell you Iʼm coming home, I was wrong, you raised me then I turned my back on you, my teenage dreams”).
For a record that finds Hélie making such a clean break with the sounds that coloured her previous records, these long, hard lyrical looks inward (and into the rearview mirror) create an intriguing and essential contrast. It reinforces the notion that Late Bloomer is a record that’s as concerned with re-discovery as it is with discovering an entirely new foundation upon which to build something new.