[6 August 2009]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
When people talk about good headphones albums, they tend to mean loud records—albums like Loveless or some other crushing sound that surround you with thick layers of noise. And only by bringing it right to your ear, by drowning the rest of the world out and giving in to its brutal assault, can you finally sift through the layers and find what’s really there, what’s really beautiful.
But the second album by Tiny Vipers, the mostly solo project from Seattle’s Jesy Fortino, is not that kind of headphones record. Not at all. In fact, on first listen, you might think what I thought. This is just too quiet. The guitar is off in the distance, Fortino’s vocals are full, and braced with subtle force, but there’s all this space between the words she sings. It feels like you’d have to cross some huge expanse to connect at all with her music all the way through the album.
Until you put the headphones on.
Because that space between her words, if you’re willing to live in it for a little while, becomes deafening. Much of Life on Earth finds Fortino searching for answers in a world far too big to even conceive as a whole. “What can we learn when we can’t understand?”, she asks in “The Dreamer”, and though she’s talking about a relationship there, she might as well be talking about the world around her.
To hear her sing about it is to hear about something huge and alien. She stares out at everything at once, “eyes following the daylight back into the ground” on “Eyes Like Ours”. She even wonders at the very beginning of light on the haunting, 10-minute-plus title tracks. And what makes these songs so affecting is how willing they are to remain unraveled. Her barely-there guitar, all faint ringing notes off in the distance, doesn’t sound frail for all its quiet. And there’s a crackling energy to her voice, even as the words leak out in pained worry, that suggests she wants the answers she knows she’ll never have. She wants to understand the world around her; she wants to repair broken connections with past lovers and old friends. She wants to be a part of the world, but she wants to know something, anything, about it first.
But in all this searching, even at her most hurt, she never pleads. The entire album welcomes the silence around it in, and as Life on Earth moves along at its deliberate and methodical pace, that silence becomes its own sound. It becomes the size of the world around Fontino, and it also keeps her small. But she’s strong too, as when she barks out lines like “I’m dying for a way out” at the end of “The Dreamer”, or “I know I won’t look back toward you or this crazy world” as “Life on Earth” fades. She sounds cut free of something heavy, clear-eyed and hopeful even in the middle of that huge, dark quiet that surrounds her.
You could call what Fontino does folk, if playing an acoustic guitar and singing makes something folk. But Life on Earth stretches beyond that kind of genre restriction, and its loose structures and heavy repetition owe as much to ambient music as it does to Townes Van Zandt and the like. Every note she plucks is given its own space, so much so that the full strum of “Time Takes”, though hardly loud, can jar you out of the album’s trance. Even the two tracks Fortino recorded at home, “Young God” and “Twilight Property”, have their own warbling charm, but they’re missing the affecting space of the studio work. It’s a subtle difference, but it’s noticeable, because that humming space everywhere else can have an unassuming but firm grip on the listener.
Fortino’s best trick here is drawing you in until your wonder meshes with hers, where you want the big answers to the big questions that she wants. You want to feel connected to the world, even if its by admitting that we’re all isolated in some way. She gets us wishing for answers, fills us with hope and sadness—often at the same time—and smartly leaves us with no resolution. Someone turns to face her at the record’s end, and she sings, “But when you turned it was somebody else, and it will always be somebody else.”
Like rest of the album, you can hear it as heartbreaking or willful, as a bitter end or a hopeful beginning. In the same way you have to be able to give in to the record, Life on Earth can bend to your mood, bracing you when you’re hopeful or consoling you when you hurt. At its best, this album can reel you in that close, can make you interact with it, and can certainly surround you as well as any wall-of-sound record out there. This kind of deliberate quiet may not be for everyone. But if you’re willing to live with Life on Earth for a while, you might be surprised how comforting its vast isolation can feel.