Tiny Vipers Life on Earth

[Sub Pop; 2009]

Styles: slowcore, ambient folk, singer-songwriter
Others: Low, Karen Dalton, Lisa Gerard, Fleet Foxes

Life on Earth's cover art is a perfect encapsulation of its music. Jesy Fortino -- the singer, songwriter, and sole band member -- stands against a bleak gray sky, partially obscured by something too close for the camera lens to decipher. From below, embers rise, born up by the very wind that snuffs them out. There is a sense in these glacial, languorous compositions that the world is a very big, dark place, and that we can only do so much to bring it light.

I'm familiar with the bearded, wool-sweater-wearing arm of Sub Pop's current lineup, with Vetiver and Fleet Foxes and Iron and Wine and a host of other artists who, quite frankly, bore the living hell out of me. But I heard the song “Dreamer” on the label's digital sampler, and something about it called out to the deepest sub-rational hinterlands of my psyche. Who possesses this lonely, angelic voice? The guitar is so sparse it's practically not there. The very minimalism of it creates this sense of immensity, as if she and her guitar were at the center of some vast, desolate universe. Against all odds, this song moved me, moved me so deeply that I was almost reluctant to explore the rest of the album for fear that it was a fluke, that she couldn't possibly maintain that kind of intensity, that level of delirious beauty for 10 more tracks

Blissfully, “Dreamer” was no fluke, and Life on Earth is a very remarkable album. At times, Fortino sings as though weighted down by the magnitude of reality. There's an honest sense of weariness in the album opener “Eyes like Ours.” Even the song's small-town setting seems insufficient to insulate the speaker and her loved one from the void beyond. Fortino moans “Eyes like ours/ They bring the world to us/ But they turn you around and around/ Eyes following the daylight/ Back into the ground.” It's as if the protagonists are broken by their very thirst for life's mysteries. It's a pervasive sentiment throughout; many of her personas seem to be trapped and suffocating in a milieu that cannot satisfy their desire for something more.

For as spare as her pallet is (many of the songs consist only of Fortino's single or multi-tracked vocals accompanied by her own acoustic guitar), there is a staggering diversity in tone and feeling throughout the album. Dig beneath the top layer of melancholy, and you'll find a whole gamut of human experience. It ranges from the lovelorn balladry of “Dreamer” to the droning, eerie “Twilight Property,” with its backdrop of hazy feedback lurking like a predator in the shadows. Perhaps the closest Fortino comes to an outright expression of joy is in the title track, a lush, sprawling, 10-minute benediction of both the light and the darkness, an acceptance of life as a state in which beauty and horror are inextricably mingled.

This is my favorite aspect of this album and indeed one of the hallmarks of music: to lay life bare in all its hardness and cruelty and to make it seem all the more beautiful in spite of it. When Jesy Fortino lays her fingers on her guitar, she is striking flint to stone, and her music is a shower of sparks that lights, for just an instant, one small corner of this great, dark universe. And in the end, isn't that the most that any artist can hope for?

1. Eyes Like Ours
2. Development
3. Slow Motion
4. Dreamer
5. Time Takes
6. Young God
7. Life on Earth
8. CM
9. Tiger Mountain
10. Twilight Property
11. Outside

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