[26 February 2014]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Many a band with big, expansive, heavily orchestrated sounds have fallen victim to constant expansion, to trying to stretch past their already epic means. Even on their folkier debut, All Alone in an Empty House, Lost in the Trees was pushing its borders with neo-classical flourishes. The beautiful and sad A Church That Fits Our Needs, a tribute to frontman Ari Picker’s late mother, meshed those two sides of the band’s sound into something even grander, even more atmospheric.
Past Life, the new third record, avoids a sonic arms race with its predecessors and instead peels the layers back. If those albums rose out of folk and orchestral influences, Past Life leans closer to electronic flourishes, lean rock, and power-pop structures. For the album, Picker pared back the band’s usual sextet to a quartet, and the results are refreshing and solid, a convincing and inventive about-face for the band and a new direction that feels like it has a lot of miles to explore.
It’s also a thematic move away from the pervasive loss of the previous two records. There is a shadowy feel to this song, and loss and mortality are not gone, but Picker’s relationship to them has changed. Opener “Excos” finds Picker talking about “spreading my ashes to the wind”, invoking death and loss right up front. But this moment is one of possible closure, of the first next step. This isn’t a dwelling on what isn’t, but what could be. “All I want is your heart,” he insists over shuffling percussion and sweeping sounds, as if they were blowing the ashes away, rejoining them with some meaningful corner of the world. On the title track, Picker claims “death is just a staircase” as he reaches for light. There’s much talk of tomorrow, of talking in the future or meeting in the next life (“Lady in White”), or of the sustaining hope found in a spouse asleep next to you (“Glass Harp”). Even when the album closer, “Upstairs”, finds Picker “stumble[ing] through the dark”, it is in a familiar place, a home, and it is not a stumble of the lost but a stumble of someone hoping to find.
And so the album doesn’t move on so much as it accepts some loss as preamble to what comes next. Water is constantly rising in these songs, but boats don’t rise with the tide here; instead these voices adapt. So, too, does the music. The sound is far more percussion-driven, more spare, than the past records, but it still delivers a similar beauty. The strange and exciting thing about Past Life, though, is how these odd elements mesh. If the overall effect of these songs is intimate, sublime, even dreamy, the individual elements are often far more scuffed. “Past Life” is built on jagged guitar fills that expand into frustrated, distorted grinds. The stillness of “Lady in White” is tilted by deeply funky bass lines. “Daunting Friend” contrasts the wide-open string arrangements with razor-thin guitar hooks. “Wake” juxtaposes similar strings with rumbling bass, squealing guitars, and horror-flick piano keys. All around these songs, shadowy space stretches out, not haunting so much as inviting, unknown. The rhythm section is what sells all of this. It propels the songs forward, even gives them a lively yet muscled shuffle. The electronic flourishes here are spare but also key, highlighting the clean rhythms and making the other instruments sound more vital, more alive, instead of coated in an inorganic drone.
Past Life is a controlled but never too controlled affair, a great pop-rock record from a band treading new ground. Lost in the Trees has always been in a state of change, and yet every piece of music they drop along the ways feels fully formed, never transitional. This is their most daring and dynamic shift yet, an album that can both carry the long shadow of the past and pump the hot blood of the here and now. On Past Life, Picker may not be totally sure what’s coming next, but he and the band sound ready to find out.