Steve Tibbetts guitar, piano
Marc Anderson percussion, handpan
Michell Kinney cello, drones
Recorded in St. Paul
Engineers: Steve Tibbetts and Greg Reierson
Mastered by Greg Reierson at Rare Form Mastering
An ECM Production
Release date: May 18, 2018
Physically speaking, guitars are solids. In the hands of Steve Tibbetts, they turn into liquids. For his ninth ECM outing, the Minnesotan guitarist puts on his most intimate pair of interpretive glasses yet, pouring said liquids into 13 dedicatory vessels. Tibbetts again holds close to his Martin D-12-20, a 50-year-old 12-string acoustic that has become as much a part of him as he of it. To that trusted palette he adds streaks of piano and field recordings of Balinese gongs. As ever, percussionist Marc Anderson serves as copilot for the journey, while cellist Michelle Kinney (last heard on Big Map Idea) provides underlying circulation.
As if in service of the latter metaphor, “Bloodwork” openly introduces the album in response to a procedure underwent by his ill sister. In it one can hear, as suggested in the album’s press release, the clinical precision with which this music materializes. And yet from that attention to detail emerges an entirely organic sound, replete with human variations and misalignments. All of which is reflected in the fact that Tibbetts plays his guitar with nearly-worn frets and old strings, giving it, in his own words, “a mellow, aged sound, with its own peculiar internal resonance.”
Those familiar with his body of work will have come to expect arrangements that transcend borders while embracing a sometimes-gargantuan sound. Here, however, he zeroes in on seeds beneath the fields he has been tending all these years. Indeed, the baseline beauty of “Life Of Mir”—one of 10 eponymously themed tracks named for loved ones or those Tibbetts has simply observed—teems with life as would the ripest soil. “Life Of Emily” also feels very much alive, trading earth for flesh in a prism of fatherhood, sunlight, and hints of oncoming rain.
The percussion is attuned to every moment in which it is employed, never mere decoration but siphoning its energy from an internal chemistry. Take in the occasional footstep in “Life Of Lowell” or the whispering cymbal in “Life Of Dot,” and you’ll surely feel it, too. At rare moments, as in “Life Of Joan” and “Life Of El,” these forces combine in a mosaic, fitting together shapes and colors in honor of memory. Like the album as a whole, “Life Of Someone” holds the past as an archive for the future—a time capsule already aged before it reaches the ear.
Life Of culminates, appropriately enough, with “Start Again,” a nine-minute swirl of mental images and other formless pigments made audible through the care of an artist who treats every note as ground on which to walk.