I got home today a bit worn out from it all, but that happens sometimes. I’m resilient, though, and I had a lovely record to recharge my batteries on my long walk home. Let’s talk about that, shall we?
Disc 1156 is… Small Believer
Artist: Anna Tivel
Year of Release: 2017
What’s up with the Cover? This could have been a Giant Head cover, but it is so dark you can only see a portion of Anna Tivel’s head. Instead, let’s call it a Caput Ingens Obscura cover, because Latin makes everything sound more fancy.
How I Came To Know It: This album was reviewed favourably in a recent copy of Penguin Eggs magazine, so I checked Tivel out on her Bandcamp site. Bandcamp is a great way to see if you like a relatively obscure artist – just remember to give them some money if you like what you hear.
How It Stacks Up: I only have this one album, so it can’t stack up.
Ratings: 4 stars
I had an opportunity on Sunday to just wander around town, and not have to be anywhere in particular. I’m an extrovert and I usually get my energy in the company of others, but I found the experience refreshing and thought-provoking. A big part of why was having the elfin lilt of Anna Tivel’s voice in my ear through it all.
Tivel is a singer-songwriter from Portland who composes intimate songs about ordinary people and their extraordinary hearts. Like every great folk singer she understands that when those small tales are told with honesty and care they become universal expressions of the human condition.
The record sounds sparse and it echoes in places. It makes you feel like you are walking down dark streets in the early morning hours with nothing but your thoughts to keep you company - or to be more precise, the thoughts of Tivel’s exquisitely drawn characters.
Tivel’s hard-scrabble characters don’t cut through the night so much as they are absorbed by it. Women flee broken relationships, sometimes looking back through tears, sometimes finding an inner peace in reconciling the good memories with the bad. Life is complicated after all, and surviving a rough patch can be celebration enough. These are stories that end unresolved. They land on the four and stick there, reminding you that long after arbitrary storybook endings, people have to pick themselves up and keep living their lives.
“Saturday Night” has a crooner quality that would be at home on some slow-moving Sinatra from the fifties, as Tivel paints the picture of that time of night when most decent folks have gone to bed, and the ones who are still awake are wrapped in thought:
“A raven’s asleep in the rafters, a stray cat circles a kill
From the basement, the tin-can laughter of a late night thrill
Tomorrow’s asleep on the front step, and yesterday dreams in the street
But in the basement apartment, a shadowy man, he just stares at the wall
He can’t sleep
And me I’m just part of the darkness, just trying to get something right
On a Saturday night”
Tivel doesn’t just sing the stories of people alone in their thoughts, she whispers to you a soft confession; she is one of them. Are you?
Tivel has a knack for capturing the fragility of otherwise hard characters. On “Riverside Hotel” a Vietnam vet sits and drinks out of a brown bag and takes what solace he can from the clang and crash of workers erecting a building across the street. On “Dark Chandelier” Tommy is a 31-year factory veteran, wandering town drunk after losing his job. “The rain coming down like a dark chandelier” as he confronts his rage:
“The heat and the rise of a burning shame
The pride in the work and the years that he gave
Just a flick of a pen, just a cold handshake
What’s a man really worth at the end of the day?”
Yet like the Riverside Hotel veteran, Tommy finds an inner strength. It may come as he lies bleeding on his lawn with sirens wailing in the distance, but it is there. Like many of her songs, Tivel ends “Dark Chandelier” with the melody unresolved, and while it creates sadness it also creates hope for what might come next. Or as Tommy quietly prays, “Don’t take me tonight, I got work to do yet.”
Tivel’s biggest challenge is that her voice is such a soft whisper. It perfectly suits the album, and makes the intimate moments even more vulnerable, but it isn’t hit-making material. This is music and poetry that requires a set of headphones and your full attention. The songs have a quietness about them that makes you fearful they’ll somehow blow away in a strong wind, if it weren’t for the conviction of Tivel’s delivery holding them in place.
When I left the house on Sunday, I’d already heard this album twice and I was prepared to listen to something else if I got tired of it. That just never happened. I listened to this quiet and dark-toned album amid the hustle and bustle of daytime city life for four days and all it ever did was enhance my calm. Because of the subtle way it steals into your heart, “Small Believer” may never be a commercial hit, but subtle beauty is no less wondrous when you take the time to appreciate it. I encourage you to do so.
Best tracks: Illinois, Saturday Night, Alleyway, Dark Chandelier, Riverside Hotel, Small Believer