Minnesotan guitarist Steve Tibbetts has been releasing solo albums at a pretty slow rate since the mid-’90s. Works like 1994’s The Fall of Us All and its eventual 2002 follow-up A Man About a Horse captured the musician in a particularly eclectic mood. He somehow managed to blend caustic electric guitars with elements like a Norwegian fiddle and Tibetan prayers without sounding pretentious or cluttered. For 2010’s Natural Causes, he scaled back — way back. Apart from some light percussion from Marc Anderson, Tibbetts was largely having conversations with himself using an acoustic guitar, piano, bouzouki, and kalimba. He took another eight years to make Natural Causes‘s sequel, Life Of, an album that mysteriously manages to be more vague and mysterious than its predecessor. In Steve Tibbett’s mind, the chief difference between the two is that he’s “a better piano player now”.
Piano and acoustic guitar are the only two instruments Tibbetts allows himself to play on Life Of. He is joined by longtime percussionist Anderson and cellist Michelle Kinney, though their contributions are, at most, ghostly. The nature of the music itself is so eerie and airless that I, just as a listener, have a hard time grasping what the central idea is of each piece. Tempos barely exist, and I wouldn’t be too surprised if most of the album were performed in the same key. Ten of the 13 tracks are named after someone in Tibbett’s orbit: “Life of Emily”, “Life of Joel”, “Life of Carol”, and “Life of Someone”. The brief opener “Bloodwork” commemorates Tibbett’s donation of his stem cells to his sister to cure her ovarian cancer.
It’s true that Tibbetts has become more proficient at the piano. Instead of using the instrument to color in bits of the background, he occasionally strolls it around for a bit of walking, as on “Life of Joel”. But most of the time, it’s the phantom noises of the guitar that are the main attraction: the creak of the wood, the movement of the player’s limbs, the high-pitched harmonic overtones, and the slightly imperfect unison note bending on a 12-string guitar. It’s like listening in on an immaculately recorded practice session where ideas are summoned, fade away, only to be instantly replaced with new ideas. Repetition rarely occurs. Calling these ideas “songs” is misleading since it sounds like they all mutated from the same source. As a Jazziz writer once put it of Tibbetts, “the forest is more intriguing to him than the trees.”
So if you found yourself thinking “gosh, I’d like this music if it were much more subtle” while listening to Natural Causes, then Life Of will suit you just fine. If you miss the days when Steve Tibbetts would fearlessly experiment with distorted electric guitars and tape loops, then Life Of will not be your cup of tea at all. This recording has marked a spot where Tibbetts and his fellow musicians have done everything in their power to explore the spaces between the notes. The strings are old, the frets are worn down, and the downbeat is just an abstract idea, man.