For some reason, it seems as if the United States churns out more earnest singer-songwriters than does any other country in the world. We produce spare, sincere, folksy artists like the U.K. produces devil-may-care, smart-alecky frontmen. Depending on your tastes, this is either boring or a sure sign that American music is serious music, and that our tunes are exported all around the world for a reason. Jesy Fortino’s Tiny Vipers project feels distinctly American, and although it’s probably not something that teenagers in Kuala Lampur are going to be bopping their heads to, it’s certainly serious.
Fortino’s been clear about the fact that Life on Earth is an album inspired by the natural beauty of her home state, Washington, and that’s so obvious in listening to the album that any signposting from Fortino seems unnecessary. Her patient, spaceous approach recalls that of Phil Elvrum of Mt. Eerie, a similarly minded Washington-based recording artist. More than anything else, Tiny Vipers and Life on Earth are about creating an atmosphere, the feeling that Fortino is whispering into your ear as you lean against a cedar, staring at the blue dusk.
If the goal of this record is to create a thick sense of mood, then, Life on Earth is successful. But is the mood of the record engaging or just moody? Does Life on Earth go beyond particularly effective background sound into the realm of a deeply affecting album? Almost.
Tiny Vipers’ most compelling moments are lyrical; they pretty much have to be, with Fortino’s consistently sparse instrumentation. The best examples are the “I’m dying for a way out” in “Dreamer” and the “Young god, are you watching?” from “Young God.” Life on Earth has a good number of little turns like that, and they make the album and the feeling of Fortino’s conviction much stronger. The problem is that there really aren’t enough of them. Fortino’s work is sombre, and given over to meandering enough that, when she calls us back to attention the call should be sharp and clear. Slightly too often, Fortino feels too lost in her vision to remember that there are people listening.
Accusing artists of indulgence has always felt like a pretty silly argument to me. Essentially anyone who’s going to sit down and spend hours and hours writing and recording an album is going to tie on the bib and do their fair share of indulgence. In this case, though, Fortino’s considerable talent for trance-inducing musical honesty could probably use a little bit of editing. It’s better in the end for listeners to feel like they’re being driven, not just along for the ride.