The power of Jesse Lortz’s music lies in its undiminished tone. The first song he wrote for the Case Studies project, “Villain”, has been made anew for This Is Another Life, but retains the heat-seeking spirit it premiered with. It’s a home recording in the truest sense of the phrase, a song in which one can feel the touch of their lover anywhere, hearing their message from the road or by their side. Beyond its suppressed production and minimal instrumentation, the demo is a song about shelter, one that embellishes warmth at the moment of welcoming sentiment. “I’m alright,” Lortz hums, strummed guitar suddenly becoming full-bodied and lighting up the space around him, “If I need to, I can find the road that leads me back to you.” The way home on “Villain” is clear: you make it up in your head.
The new adaptation of “Villain” casts Lortz as little more than a recurring player, a humble accompaniment to a potent vocal performance by Marissa Nadler. It’s no longer as cosy and crammed in as before, arranged with dominant piano playing throughout, and it’s also not a one-sided conversation anymore, Lortz’s assurances now the answers to a lover’s questions, the “I’m alright” a response to all that Nadler asks. Their duet is sublime, a rendition landing somewhere between a quarrel and its resolution, and yet the song doesn’t shift perspective, or shirk its emotional territory. Rather, it’s as if the person Lortz was talking about came inside and starting singing beside him. “Villain” is still about making peace with the winding road, its trundling guitar riff carrying the song into the distance. I don’t know which version I prefer, which is a stunning achievement; I don’t feel persuaded by one over the over, or any sense of problem in saying that they are as good as each other. For so many other revisits, I’d be thinking good but different: Bob Dylan can rearrange “Girl From the North Country” – and like Lortz and Nadler, with a counterpart, Johnny Cash his willful partner – but he casts it like it’s going out to a different person, or as if he and Cash have different women in their heads. For “Villain”, I’m just impressed at the feeling Lortz can recreate, how he can immunize himself from the open road with the help of Nadler.
Like “Villain”, This Is Another Life nails its tone. I feel it is everything Lortz wants it to be, that if I’d heard these piano ballads in a more discreet form I would have gotten the same emotional reactions. He ambles between the burdens tugging at him – the theatrical, symphonic “In a Suit Made of Ash” and the desperate to resolve “Passage / Me in the Dark” – and their freeloading, his ability to ease their weight for the thrill of a ride. The breezy, open-road pastoralism of “Riding East, and Through Her” and “From Richard Brautigan” acts as a counterpoint to Lortz’s documented nadir, both just as unyielding as the darkly melodramatic songs they supplement. “Riding East” is loosened by its bouncy opening bass notes, taking to the breeze in any direction as Lortz mumbles landscape notes and minute exchanges between friends, or both: “The canyon wind was so California cold / So I let you borrow my Midwestern hat.” It’s as if he’s too caught up in the journey to reflect on it. This Is Another Life is compelled by the gravity of its situations, able to diverge into slick guitar motifs only when the occasion calls for it; for Lortz, freewheeling rock requires the same dictation as a murder ballad.
The stylistic shifts of This Is Another Life are extreme. Lortz can pick himself up and step into the light, removing his shackles for a journey, but both sides of the record are intertwined with a rustic rock sound, informed with the same reverence Fleet Foxes mine to revive folk pastiches. These songs lay sparse groundwork, making use of one governing feature, but are informed with an undercurrent of ornate arrangements—a string swell, an abandoning guitar phrase, or a soft, shimmering drum fill. Beyond the flourishing rock histories, however, Lortz seems unable to unite the two sensations into one body, moving through hard slogs of burden without making reference to later moments of jubilance. These songs are overt, nailing their tones completely, but it’s like listening to two different records balanced on the back of one. Lortz’s weightier, more sinister songwriting seems to take over the album; he takes the idea of ballads as literally as he does a good romp, teasing out their heavy load six minutes a piece, playing piano with a painstaking attention to detail. The three ballads that split the album up – “Passage / Me in the Dark”, “You Say to Me, You Never Have to Ask”, and the more ruminative “A Beast I Have Yet to Find” – are slow hitters, but their presence on the album becomes daunting, a ubiquitous half-force on an album pulled down to their pace.
A retread of sublime source material makes “Villain” the best Case Studies song yet, but it also stuns the album around it: for this one moment, Lortz strikes out on his own, bringing about his fears and then eluding them rather than combining old folk tropes with new ones. It’s able to reconcile the anxieties of This Is Another Life with the motion and movement it occasionally unloads on, and both are essential to one another. The album around it is packed with its weight and little else, but on “Villain” it feels like the burden has genuinely been lifted. Whether or not Nadler unlocks the true spirit of Lortz’s album in her performance, it’s the guy recording DIY demos that made this song what it was. The execution of This Is Another Life may be its best feature, but “Villain” shows Lortz is at his best when he assesses the damage, rather than splitting it sideways.