All personal tragedy and affliction is born of the distance between the reality of what is and the imagination of what might be. Or at least it would seem that way from several listens to Stitches, the nth album from Tim Rutili’s Califone. For almost 15 years now, Rutili has been crafting avant-folk that, in its very dichotomy of the homespun and the transmundane, has appeared to play out such a fissure between the Real and what we’d like from the Real, and now, in his band’s first long-player since 2009’s All My Friends Are Funeral Singers, he’s coupled his knack for organic-inorganic eclecticism with lyrics that, employing less abstraction than in earlier incarnations, recognize problems as the deviations from the unreachable ideals that they very often are. While Stitches may not be as stylistically cavalier as previous efforts and feels a little more like the solo effort of a folk troubadour than the work of a multidisciplinarian collective tugging itself in multiple directions, it’s no less impressive for its focus and concision, its songs standing up as some of the most relatable of Califone’s ever-deepening canon.
These insidious effects of impossible visions and aspirations are all but explicitly broached in opener “Movie Music Kills A Kiss.” Aside from the pastel verse’s drowsy repetition of the title phrase, which itself is a recognition of the destructiveness of ideals, Rutili confesses to an unnamed partner, “The ghost of you comes clear as day,” acknowledging over the lilting guitar and languid piano that a certain insubstantial image of his paramour is more vibrant and consequential for him than anything he can see or touch, than anything with which he might possibly find happiness. The pathos of this split is registered in the bittersweet turns of chord, the elastic sweeps of slide guitar, and the occasional shining of an over-delicate electric organ that evanesces before it can gain a more concrete foothold.
This theme is developed further in later numbers. During “Frosted Tips,” over what is initially a busier and more exuberant run of choppy strumming, jangly melodies, and outgoing horns, the chorus stoically reiterates the line, “Watching the new world die,” as if whatever hopes Rutili had naively expected to come to fruition had withered away before given a chance to bud. In its upbeat forward movement and layered earthiness, the song could be profiled as an attempt to remain positive in the face of disillusionment, but yet its bridge heralds a depressed lull that introduces stuttered electronic clips and maudlin strings; from this subsidence, the track never regains its former pep, instead closing itself out in a semi-numbed, fatalistic drift towards silence, while Rutili broods, “These stone lips and frosted tips/ Are never growing out.”
“Moses” provides another example of this repeating disparity between hopeful fiction and sober fact, its windy jeremiad beginning as it does with the couplet, “Moses couldn’t take/ The step into the promised land.” Yet if Stitches labors on the rift between what is and what “should” be, then it’s only because Rutili has a more fundamental preoccupation weighing him down, which in this case is the eternal problem of human relationships and the tension between human interdependence and independence. This comes to the fore in the LP’s title track, which through haggard, doleful rises of organ and synthetic ambience introduces a fatigued meditation on interpersonal dependency and the futility in trying to escape the emotional and psychological ties that bind us to each other. Its chorus includes the lament, “Cut the connection/Just to stitch it together/Again, again, again,” while the plaintive verses similarly invoke the imagery of dressing old wounds as a means of (temporarily) reconciling with an estranged other. This motif is interesting in the context of the aforementioned concern with unrealistic ideals and archetypes, since it’s entirely plausible to suggest that it’s these very ideals that both serve as the “stitches” that bring the protagonist couple back together and ultimately sunder them once more when both parties recognize that these same ideals aren’t actualized by their involvement.
However, all these entries into the wearied sentiments that pervade Califone’s 2013 wouldn’t amount to more than a faintly diverting book of poetry if it weren’t for the adroit, water-colored music that carries them. It becomes clear from only a few listens to Stitches that Rutili has honed his artisan’s ear not only for melody and texture, but also for how the two can mutually complement and heighten each other. In “A Thin Skin of Bullfight Dust,” a buoyant, quietly rousing guitar lullaby furnishes a central impetus that’s deepened, transfigured, and thickened by puffs of distortion, upsurges of restive feedback, and the chimes of incidental miscellany, all of which combine to instigate a sense of transition and upheaval that’s perfectly attuned to lyrics like “Every seven years/ We become another.” In fact, it’s at this later point in the album that its emotional direction veers anew, with the comfortable lassitude of subsequent piece “We Are A Payphone” delivering the impending resolution, “Last of the Moon/ Wear a loose heart/ Is it too late to turn this around?” Here the phlegmatic horns and floating dabs of guitar suggest in their resigned easiness that Rutili has vowed not to expect too much from his future, not to measure it against corrosive models of what might be. Of course, such anti-idealism is itself an ideal of the type it hopes to jettison, but that’s neither here nor there as far as the song’s breezy quality goes.
And it’s neither here nor there as far as Stitches’s overall quality goes. Because in its unassumingly modest richness, its subtle accentuation of the rustic with the modern, and its evenhanded painting of the kind of shortcomings with which most of us can identify, this release easily fits itself into the library of Califone albums. There may be less surprises over its 45 minutes than over the course of earlier efforts, but Rutili’s hand for slanted folk songs that possess their own select personality is as strong as ever, and for this reason, we have at least one thing whose reality is equal to its unreal paradigm.