Songwriters do something really special: They take details of the world around and within us, and express them in words and music in order to connect us not only to them and their work, but to each other, if not ourselves, as well. It’s an infinitely generous gift they have. And the ones who can turn plain spoken language into breath-taking poetry are the rarest of the breed.
Anna Tivel has that talent and more than willingly shares it with the world. On her new album, The Question, she wanders through various lives and stories, noticing and recounting the tiniest of moments that carry the heaviest of weights. These lyrical tales may seem somewhat freeform on merely a cursory listen, but there’s so much more going on underneath the surface and it’s not at all hard to get drawn in to those depths. Thankfully, the gentle warmth of her voice and the intentional intimacy of the production join forces to make sure it’s a truly beautiful drowning, by any measure.
Still, the real grace of Tivel’s talent is that she sees her subjects all the way through and that makes her work both mesmerizing and devastating. Once she sees them and knows them, she fleshes them out in melody and lyric, then she fully inhabits them so that we might know them, too. What of a character who would not only say, but believe, that “I used to be a waste of time,” as in “Shadowland”? Though the past tense betrays the hope embedded therein, far too many people are considered throw-aways in a culture that fails to value the richness of every single life. It’s a theme she takes on again from a different angle in “Worthless.”
Throughout the song cycle, Tivel makes points that need to be made and asks questions that can’t be answered. She knows that the destination is never what matters, not when we are unwilling to look at the pain and despair that fills the journey for so many. There are numerous fine examples of Tivel’s own willingness to not turn her gaze away, including “Homeless Child.”
As heartbreakingly lovely as the whole album is, it’s still hard to not just put the title track on a loop. There’s just so much to unpack in what represents the stunning heart of this record. “I knew you by description, the tall tales, the pictures, your short hair and your lipstick, the smell of coming rain,” she sings in the title track before making her confession. “And I wanted to remain there, a voyeur, a stranger, below you in the night air just waiting to be changed.” That line is all of us who look to songwriters… waiting, begging to be changed.