Portland singer-songwriter Anna Tivel’s new record The Question is nuanced, full of hope, and a welcome addition to this year’s folk releases. It’s an album we need in this scary, upside down world.
There’s no easing into The Question: The first two tracks are about religion and gender identity and America’s border with Mexico.
The first and title track has Tivel peering into an apartment window to see a man putting on makeup and a wig. “I knew you by description, the tall tales, the picture, your short hair and your lipstick… and the neighbors never mention the woman they see leaving is the man who works the morning shift selling gasoline.”
Then a monotone piano key is repeatedly hammered, opening up Fenceline, Tivel’s gritty tale of the United States’ southern border fence told from two perspectives: an American guarding it, and a would-be Mexican migrant crawling toward it with a “hammering heart and the dust in [his] eyes.” And though the subject matter is grim, when she hits the nigh note of the second chorus, it’s the most angelic, ecstatic moment I’ve heard in a song in a long time.
Tivel reminds me of Josh Ritter. The songs on The Question are, like Ritter’s, narrative, story-driven lyrical wonders set to melodies and forms that draw heavily on the Americana folk tradition, with just enough mystery to make you listen again to piece it all together.
Nowhere is the comparison more apt than on Worthless, where, into a slightly distorted microphone, Tivel almost raps lyrics that could have jumped off one of the records from Josh Ritter’s prime: “Two quarters in my hand, nothing else in my pocket, I’m a wild horse pawing at the cracked dead earth…” A dirty, tinny Tom Waits-esque shuffle backs her up and when Tivel inevitably starts playing larger venues with more elaborate staging, this song will be when the fog machines come on.
A highlight of the album’s tenderloin is Anthony, which is tough to listen to without getting a knot in your stomach for the song’s narrator, who dashes into a burning house (“I lost my sense and I ran back inside”) with ominous strings and thundering drums replicating the sound of a fire. Tivel sings a laundry list of things going up in flames: “The kitchen ablaze and the wallpaper curling, the table where you and I figured it out… a crash in the hallway, the photographs falling, the shattering glass like rain coming down…”
So where is the hope in a record that has a song called Homeless Child? Which has songs about a home going up in smoke? The two brilliant songs at the very end serve as an invitation to take a little optimism with us when music is finished. I don’t want to ruin the plot lines of these two songs, but I will say that they are uplifting and that Tivel saves the best for last.
Velvet Curtain is the most beautiful song ever written about janitorial work. Tivel tells of sweeping up a theater after a performance, singing into the broom handle, a makeshift microphone stand as she sweeps. Under the impression that she’s singing only to herself, by the song’s end she realizes her singing did more than help her pass the time.
Then Two Strangers, a short film of a song if there ever was one, closes the record. I heard Tivel play this song at a festival over the summer, went to go see her again a few months later, and audibly exhaled with relief when she played it a second time because I’d been craving it for months.
Tivel’s stunning 2017 record Small Believer established her on the Pacific Northwest folk scene, and The Question will, deservedly, propel her far beyond it.
The Question is out now on Fluff & Gravy Records.
Listen to The Question via spotify
Watch live version of The Question
Watch full session from Paste Magazine Studios in NYC