by Elna SchutzIt is often said that our lives are like stories, but this sentiment comes to life through the character-driven narratives in the third album of New Zealand’s pop/folk songbird Brooke Fraser. Flags boasts eleven songs that wind around topics of love, grief and wandering, using slow ballads and lilting sing-along tunes. This album marks a new chapter in Fraser’s career, with a transformed approach to lyric-writing and music-making that sets it apart from her previous work while still offering loyal fans what they expect and love. The album, released on October 12th 2010, was the first to be produced by Fraser herself, making it a truer reflection of her vision and style. While the What To Do With Daylight and Albertine albums were intensely introspective contemplations, in Flags Fraser channels her emotions through specific characters. This creates a beautiful mosaic of story-telling that brings the listener close to the issues without having them spelt out. Fraser shows us the worlds of others and lets us find our own in it, such as the exploration of grief, Ice On Her Lashes, in which a widower speaks to and about his deceased wife. Flags is given depth and texture by Fraser’s collaboration with numerous talented contemporaries, such as Jon Foreman of Switchfoot and indie folk singer William Fitzsimmons, who features on the deluxe album version. The duet with Aqualung‘s Matt Hales, Who Are We Fooling?, not only brings two great voices into harmony, but brings a bittersweet dialoque about commitment to life. Fraser’s choice to include such a variety of inputs on the album, without shifting the focus from her, is a sign of her maturity as a song writer that many lack. Another highlight that gives this album its unique edge is the incorporation of various instrumental elements that range beyond the usual piano, guitar and harmonica ensembles that have become the staple of many pop/folk artists. There’s a variety of human percussion, from finger snapping to knee clapping that gives the album its unique sound and gives it a sense of community and fun. Especially the little tune Here’s To You exemplifies this, with a trumpet reminiscent of the Beatles and an assortment of background noises that seem to place the listener into a noisy pub with all of their friends. One of the strengths of Flags is its distinctive structure. Fraser hooks the listener the whimsical love song Something In The Water, that is just as sunny as the ‘demeanour made of bright, pretty things’ described in its first line. The sound progressively becomes more slower and more intense. This serves Fraser well by letting songs like the smooth love ballad Sailboats revolve and hinge on her voice. Although the transition is well-crafted and easy to follow, the intensity and sparseness of songs such as Flags can be hard to digest. The album demands the listeners full attention and although the lyrics are thought-provoking gems, the tracks can feel somewhat inaccessible if not examined closely. Flags intertwines enchanting stories and sounds to bring Fraser’s work to a new level. This album asks for devotion and, if taken seriously, will reveal treasures far beyond its catchy choruses.