Mark Twain once said that a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes. On the epic new record Li(f)e, Sage Francis attempts to speak truth to the lies that pervade all facets of existence. Backed by an unusual consortium of indie rockers, Rhode Island’s finest dissects the human condition with brutal honesty and unparalleled wit. From organized religion to interpersonal relationships and beyond, Sage examines the omnipresent impact of the myths many come to mistake as axioms.
Sage’s sonic experimentation speaks to his genre’s legacy of shattering barriers and forging new styles. While his past two Anti-/Epitaph releases showed a heavy punk influence, Li(f)e is a groundbreaking amalgamation of folk, indie rock and hip hop. Brian Deck, acclaimed for his work with Iron & Wine and Modest Mouse, produced the entire record and incorporated live instrumentation from members of DeVotchKa, Sparklehorse, Calexico and Death Cab For Cutie, many of whom had never worked on a hip hop project before. It may sound gimmicky on paper, but the result is a rap album unlike any you’ve ever heard before.
There Will Be Bloodesque strings melt into folksy riffs on “Little Houdini” and set the stage for Li(f)e. The third person narrative of a serial truck thief trying to visit his dying parents would seem to fall under the country umbrella, but Sage is adept at wrapping his delivery around the emotion of any given song. The constantly-evolving piece French composer Yann Tiersen (of Amelie fame) provides on “The Best Of Times” is one of the most unique and challenging arrangements to ever be rapped over. Sage uses this buoyant canvas to explore his subconscious through tales of childhood embarrassment and despair punctuated by a “this too shall pass” mantra.
Pain is the aphrodisiac of choice for a considerable portion of music’s most thought-provoking lyricists. Throughout his career, Sage has managed to extract existential gems from personal and global hell. “16 Years” is a lugubrious, time-traveling affair through heartache and defeat set to the haunting, ethereal cathedral of Javanese gamelan. Soul-crushing realism (“There’s something outside that we all want / but inside there’s an ex who marks the soft spot / til it rots and decays and then no one else cares / it’s been 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12 years”) blends with acerbic drollery (“I heard god is coming and she’s a screamer”) and a litany of incandescent metaphors, as fans have come to expect from one of this generation’s truly great songwriters.
Sage provides his audience with raw confessionals that are equal parts melancholic and inspirational. The blues-tinged lead single “Slow Man” and co-dependency meta-analysis of “Polterzeitgeist” attest to the brilliance of this troubadour’s iconic approach. The largely-unexplored concept of gender roles in regards to abortion is delved into via “The Baby Stays,” a multi-tiered debate worth ruminating over. “Worry Not” carries an Irish-pub-sing-along vibe in its chorus and is possibly Sage’s most upbeat song to date. Riding that positive momentum, Li(f)e shifts gears in the final act with “Love The Lie” and “The Best Of Times,” two complex, life-affirming tracks that poignantly close the curtain on a remarkable album.
Song you’ll remember in five years: “The Best Of Times”
Line you’ll remember in five years: “When you think you’ve got it all figured out and then everything collapses… trust me kid… it’s not the end of the world.” (from “The Best Of Times”)