Plenty of folks have dreamed of quitting a job that was stressful and making them unhappy, but few actually do it. Fewer still happen to be successful indie folk artists who have recently enjoyed a commercial breakthrough after years as a critics' darling. However, that's just what Kathleen Edwards did in 2014, setting aside her career in music after the success of 2012's Voyageur to open a coffee shop in Stittsville, Ontario, Canada. After Maren Morris persuaded Edwards to co-write a song with her, "Good Woman," for her album Girl, Edwards began dipping her toes back into music, and 2020's Total Freedom is her first record since taking a sabbatical from selling coffee. The album sounds very much like her best work of the 2000s -- 2005's Back to Me and 2008's Asking for Flowers -- in its assured blend of dusty prairie atmosphere and subtle yet insistent alt-country-rock moves (though this hits a bit less hard than she did 15 years prior). And thankfully, Edwards' voice is still in great shape, as the honey-dappled velvet of her instrument speaks of joy, caution, and simple determination with street smarts and courage. As a songwriter, Edwards is as strong as ever, and six years away from the music business seems to have done her heart and soul some good. "Fools Ride" is the sound of a woman glad to have learned the hard lessons of a bad relationship despite the pain it left behind, and "Glenfern" is a bemused look at what (and who) she gave up when she got off the road, and why she doesn't miss it much at all. "Birds on a Feeder" embraces the life of a homebody with quiet, comfortable joy ("I got birds on a feeder/I got dogs and they're sleeping/I got total freedom/No one to need me"), and "Options Open" is the anthem of a woman who is no longer willing to obligate herself to anyone but herself. Total Freedom is aptly named, as these songs are the work of a songwriter who demands no more and no less; now more than ever, Kathleen Edwards is living and making music in a way that honors her own spirit, and it reminds us why you don't take the work of someone this talented for granted. However long she decides to keep writing and singing her songs, we can only be grateful for the tough, heartfelt beauty she's chosen to share.
AllMusic Review by Mark Deming