Rock ‘n’ roll may be the devil’s music, but that’s not to say that there isn’t something unrepentantly venial and degenerate about the haggard, wounded folk Jesse Lortz spins out on This Is Another Life. His second full-length under the sign of Case Studies, it may not expressly advocate a conversion to satanism or espouse the fiscal advantages of insurance fraud, yet its immorality is there if you listen closely enough, harbored in its aestheticization of misery, conflict, separation, and sin, in the fact that it’s another bittersweet folk record that romanticizes these pains of being human, perpetuates their “art-worthy” status, and therefore offers an incentive for their retention to those who might otherwise have sought personal growth. Then again, Lortz’s marriage of wayfaring, broody Americana and measured, crypto-anecdotal songwriting is delivered with enough conviction and delicacy to lend credence to the possibility that a life interspersed with suffering is far richer than any untroubled alternative. He sings of conflicted relationships, unrealizable selves, and incurable character flaws, and in concert with the bucolic ornamentation provided by piano, guitars, and drums, he evokes the sense that, quite apart from any musical glamorization, these blights on life aren’t purely negative.
Yet initial plunges into the lyrical waters of the album would suggest that they are. “In A Suit Made of Ash” begins with the lines, “I came to you in a suit made of ash/ But you were already gone,” which despite the phlegmatic if wistful embellishments of the four-part piano melody that frame it, bluntly inaugurates the themes of transience, disconnection, and mortality that spine through the 10 songs. And even though much of the music on the LP is similarly enveloping in its warmth and humanity, in its use of sun-dried guitars, sleepy organs, and parched larynges to honed effect, there is almost always a damaged and pessimistic underbelly to the semantics of each track. On first listen, the acoustic hop of “From Richard Brautigan” sounds like it could be a reassured and clear-eyed affirmation of the kind of folk knowledge and pastoral wisdom that’s transmitted from person to person via oral and written traditions (“When you’re hungry find some food and eat it slowly”), yet at the end of both repetitions of the urgent chorus (“And I don’t rest easier”), Lortz negates these homespun aphorisms with two separate provisos, the first being, “Knowing you can write a story/ When the words we say out loud turn out all wrong,” and the second being, “When the bones that carried us will soon be gone.” This combination of inviting, often insinuative music with lyrics that draw attention to the impermanence and inconstancy of man as both a physical and symbolic entity has the consequence of producing an uncanny satiety and contentment with such debilitations, and once again it’s an entirely open-ended question as to whether this is a good or bad thing.
For Lortz and his band, it might possibly be a good thing, since there is a very tangible element of fatalism that haunts the album, a conviction or impression that things could never be any different, and that as a result, it would be far healthier for us to adjust to our limitations, rather than pursue ideals that in most contexts are little more than delusional maladaptations. In “Passage/Me in the Dark,” over lugubrious minor chords and the laments of a morose guitar solo, he sings, “We are not ghosts/ We were never here at all,” implying that the relationship problems charted in the rest of the song all derive from the inability of each party to be fully present to each other, to know themselves, and to know what they want. This winsome defeatism continues in “Villain,” where Marissa Nadler (she of Marissa Nadler fame) exhales in typically sirenic fashion, “Then will you fall down/ If the eyes of all your sorrows/ Cried the tears for you that your eyes never found,” a stanza that flows into a cautiously hopeful chorus guided by an ascending guitar riff. I say “cautiously” here, because the hope expressed (“If I need to I can find the road/ That leads me back to you”), in being juxtaposed with a predominantly fatigued and deflated verse, does often come across as strangely hollow in its delivery, as more of an alibi or excuse for the accompanying weariness than a concerted attempt to work through it.
It’s true that much of this frayed stoicism, this apprehension of the incorrigibility of man’s imperfections, relates to human relationships, and throughout its 44 minutes runtime, This Is Another Life paints the picture that these relations are inherently antagonistic. During the contrite barroom confessional of “Everything,” Lortz urges an unnamed someone to “Shake the hand of the man who told you lies […] who tore it all apart,” and in the fragile, cello-smeared verses of “A Beast I Have Yet to Find,” he asks someone else a gamut of questions that all seem to betray the expectation that one or both of them is only a few trysts away from being demolished (“If you were the axe of the executioner/ And I painted new lines for you on my face/ Would you carve me gently/ Right between my eyes?”). Even when the tone lightens with an energized jaunt like “Driving East, and Through Her,” there are still allusions to the (alleged) impossibility of interpersonal harmony, with the floating slide guitars converging to introduce the line: “And all the distance between us disappeared for a little while/ Though when we came down it still felt like a thousand miles.” Perhaps this abundance of references to instantly broken relationships would evidence the clichéd (though often true) assumption that all a person needs to evaporate their inveterate disillusionment with life is a regular supply of sex, yet the haplessness of relationships is not the only target of Lortz’s disenchantment. The album’s regretful-cum-resigned title track also sees him cast doubt on his own perception and judgment, the doleful strummed guitar and humbled piano melody providing the base for the self-repudiating declaration: “There was a time I could climb/ Into the nearest tree and see my future/ Unfolding out up ahead/ And then I’d fall just to find/ That foolishly I’d tied a noose around my head.” These are the final lines of the album, and because it ends on such a dejected note, it’s safe to say that nothing has been resolved or exorcised through its movements and exploits, and that on the contrary, every problem it touched on has merely been celebrated in some vaguely perverse yet consistently beguiling way.
But maybe there’s nothing wrong with this, and since the songs on This Is Another Life are so well written, so finely paced, and so relatable in the sentiments and predicaments they weave together, there’s little justification in chiding the album for not making it patently clear that art alone doesn’t redeem misfortune and anguish. It’s an album that benefits from an expansion in the Case Studies palette, in the move away from the sparser acoustics of The World is Just A Shape to Fill the Night to include keys, occasional strings, and a greater range of amplified instrumentation, all of which combine to engender a greater emotional depth. And while it’s certainly not the most original record you’ll hear this year (being largely poor as it is in novelties of sound and structure), it’s one that should offer temporary solace, at least, to anyone who’s ever been inundated by life’s crap. Which is probably most of us.