wed 13/11/2019

CD: Laura Gibson - Empire Builder | reviews, news & interviews

CD: Laura Gibson - Empire Builder

CD: Laura Gibson - Empire Builder

West Coast songwriter gracefully soundtracks the great American rail trip

Love at first single: Laura Gibson's 'Empire Builder'

I’ve never understood why the great American train journey isn’t as romanticised as the great American road trip. There’s nowhere else you get quite that same uninterrupted time with your own thoughts: to create, to ponder, to come to terms with everything. Certainly not in the UK, where the six-hour stretch from Glasgow to London is punctuated by so many stops that letting your mind wander as a pushchair or a scalding cup of tea makes its way up the aisle is something you do at your peril.

Laura Gibson’s Empire Builder is, perhaps, the first great American rail trip soundtrack, named for the Amtrak train that formed the first part of the songwriter’s journey from her home in Oregon to a new life in New York. I fell for the album at its first single and opening track – “The Cause” is an agitated, unsettling little song strangely grounded by Gibson’s ethereal voice and percussion that itself sounds like those train tracks – but it’s the title song that’s the album’s crowning achievement. Written for “the person I loved most in the world” and accompanied by video footage filmed on the very train trip for which it was named, “Empire Builder” is by turns gut-wrenchingly direct and misty-window poetic. “You wonder why my love songs are always the grieving kind,” Gibson sings, and it all makes perfect sense.

At the end of Gibson’s cross-country journey was a graduate degree in fiction writing, and the results can clearly be heard in the reinvigorated wordplay she brings to her lyrics. Among my favourites, “Not Harmless” – a song about striking out on one’s own which comes as close as Gibson gets to anthemic, in which she likens her past self to a “wounded bird” – and the ethereal “The Search For Dark Lake”, where desire becomes a “phantom limb” against a backdrop of broken clocks and found sound. The stories here fall more on the side of fact than fiction, but the storytelling is artistry itself.


The stories here fall more on the side of fact than fiction, but the storytelling is artistry itself


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

Share this article

Add comment

Subscribe to

Thank you for continuing to read our work on For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 10,000 pieces, we're asking for £3.95 per month or £30 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take an annual subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters

Advertising feature


A compulsive, involving, emotionally stirring evening – theatre’s answer to a page-turner.
The Observer, Kate Kellaway


Direct from a sold-out season at Kiln Theatre the five star, hit play, The Son, is now playing at the Duke of York’s Theatre for a strictly limited season.



This final part of Florian Zeller’s trilogy is the most powerful of all.
The Times, Ann Treneman


Written by the internationally acclaimed Florian Zeller (The Father, The Mother), lauded by The Guardian as ‘the most exciting playwright of our time’, The Son is directed by the award-winning Michael Longhurst.


Book by 30 September and get tickets from £15*
with no booking fee.