I first discovered Anna Tivel when she was singing with Jeffrey Martin, one of my favorite singer songwriters. But then through the alchemy of the Muse, I ended up falling for Tivel’s songwriting as well. Her songwriting is poetic and engaging, telling the stories of common people with great empathy and truth. This album is, in a word, stunning. I’ve struggled to write this review only because my comments on each track feel the same; it’s soulfully evocative and interesting. I feel like I’ve met a room full of strangers after spending some time with this album. The soul who shared this album, Tivel herself, has given us a gift that we simply must cherish.
The opening track “The Question” is, of course, the title track of the album The Question. The verses give stories of common people that sound like they are all main characters. Who is this song really about? Maybe it’s about all of them and that is to stay all of us. Why are we here? What is our purpose? This opener feels much more existential. It’s ultimately about a dream, but I think (in my pure speculation) that Tivel wants us to take advantage of the immense free will that we have in this life. The world is at our fingertips more than we think, so we have a charge to embrace the opportunities that we face.
“Fenceline” is in the vein of “Illinois,” my favorite from Tivel’s last album. The rhythm and melody are unconventional in the best way possible. The image of the fenceline is delightfully agricultural. There’s a rootedness to this track that we rarely hear in music today. I can’t say for sure, but I wonder if the “dogs” at the “border” might be making the subtlest of political statements. If you have a dream to cross a border and make a new life for yourself, this one seems to be an anthem for you. I like that it’s so subtle and expressive, though, rather than feeling like an outright political protest anthem ala Pete Seeger.
“Shadowland” has the slightest difference in Tivel’s mic in the recording, which makes it sound like she’s almost whispering the lyrics into your ears. It’s really intriguing. Aside from technical tricks, the lyrics are interesting on this one. A bit more experimental than the other ones, this track feels more like the sonic equivalent of an abstract work of visual art.
On the other hand, “Figure it out” is about as straightforward a folk song as could be written. I love the gentle little half step chord changes in the melody. It’s part lullaby, part love song, and strikingly poetic. The accent guitar work reminds me of what makes the Milk Carton Kids so wonderful. “The darkness it scares me to death but I’ll figure it out.” Whoa. This song is an anthem to resilience. It makes me take a deep breath because I feel like this in my own life when it comes to being a husband, father, and decent human being. It’s striving through the ordinary that is so difficult and Tivel highlights that perfectly here.
So I think (after many listens) that “Minneapolis” is my favorite track on this engaging album. There’s a complexity on this song that feels like an evolution for Tivel’s writing. I’m not sure musically what makes it appeal to me so much, but I can tell you that the sentiment in the chorus feels bright and inspiring. The clarinet works so well on this track in making it stand out while also preserving the sense of mellow hope in the lyrics. The lyric about making love on a pile of clothes makes me smile every time; it’s such a silly characteristic moment but an awful lot of people can probably relate. It’s beautiful human song about packing up memories and moving on. I feel good when I listen to it and I hope to sing along at a concert some day soon.
“Anthony” is an unsettling song about fire, love, and sacrifice. It starts with a dissonant accident and a house fire. I don’t want to give away the full narrative of the song, but it is wrenchingly powerful. The waltz timing and the stand up bass make this one really good, especially once it moves into the emotional lyrics contemplating loss.
The next track “Homeless Child” is the kind of thing you might expect a folk singer to talk about. The song interestingly evokes the name of Jesus Christ and I don’t think that was an accident. I’m still wrestling with the meaning of the song; it seems to be about how society has abandoned a lot of needy people. But if my interpretation of the song is correct, it’s not that it’s just a straightforward morality tale; it’s more of an everyman narrative about how we are all neglected by society. It’s a bit more nihilistic than I expected based on the other songs on the album.
The final track “Two Strangers” goes back to some of the more involved production elements. But at the core the thoughtful lyrics and gentle vocal style make the track appealing. The vocal harmonies on “the city lights” give the song depth. The sense of “holding out for something better” is such an important, meaningful lyric to me. It can apply to so many things in life, but the contemplative vibe of this track is perfect. I haven’t heard folk music with this artful philosophy in a long time.
This is a must-hear album for folk and Americana fans. It’s delightful in points while deeply moving in others. Tivel’s charming writing style pulls you into the stories of strangers with seeming ease. The gentleness in the acoustic guitar work throughout the album keeps it rooted while the lyrics will make you daydream wistful, hopeful dreams. This is an album to be cherished.