Anna Tivel’s voice is like the cutting wind of the Pacific Northwest, her homeland — or at least how I imagine it to be. Tivel’s singing has an unflinching clarity matched only by her literary lyrics. Each song on Tivel’s fourth album, The Question, is a prayer raised from somewhere lonesome and painful, but it also asserts that the suffering is all worthwhile. It may seem like incongruous listening for one of the first warm days of spring, with my windows open and my neighbors’ chit-chat and bachata music filtering through. On the contrary, The Question is imbued with dignity and ferociousness, as much a study of pain and isolation as it is a meditation on how we find the courage to draw ourselves back from the brink.
“I wanted to explore this feeling I keep having,” Tivel says of The Question. “That maybe the everyday searching for something more, the asking of impossible questions and painful clamoring for some kind of understanding, maybe all of that is more important than any concrete answer that may or may not exist. There are questions behind all of these songs, things we all struggle with over and over, questions of identity and hurt and kindness.”
The Question is true to form for Tivel: On songs like “Velvet Curtain” and “Anthony,” we see Tivel’s exquisite storytelling casually unfurl in a way that should make any writer fly into a jealous rage. It’s not just Tivel’s eye for detail; it’s her knack for finding some of our most vulnerable moments and turning them into the ones that will change our lives. On “Anthony,” Tivel uncovers the deep meanings held within our ordinary possessions:
The kitchen ablaze and the wallpaper curling
The table where you and I figured it out
At two in the morning, alive and uncertain
Just talking in circles, dreaming aloud.
Anthony, I’m afraid, alone in the building, the billowing flame
And I lost my mind I guess
I thought I knew what forever meant.
There are also some important departures from Tivel’s previous work. “Shadowland” and “Figure It Out” slowly chip away into free jazz flights of fancy — a sharp contrast from “Fenceline,” a well-trodden country story of redemption in the desert with a trademark Tivel twist.
Regardless of the musical conventions, each of Tivel’s songs is a hallmark of literary craftsmanship. On The Question, Tivel is beginning to stretch herself musically as well. While this is a new direction for Tivel, the experiment pays off. It’s obvious to me that Tivel is going to be blazing new trails in the years to come.