Anna Tivel’s new album, Blue World, is instantly … different. The first notes on the album are a discordant chord (created, according to Tivel’s liner notes, by striking a screwdriver against a piano key). Tivel, winner of No Depression’s Singer-Songwriter Contest in 2019, takes an almost academic interest in spinning tales of outsiders at their worst who are seeking hope: a mother daydreaming about the fate of the child she gave up for adoption, an unhoused veteran watching a luxury condo go up in his former campgrounds, an elderly lesbian couple in their final moments together.
Like many artists, Tivel’s 2020 project was a reimagining of some of her back catalog. Joined by pianist Galen Clark and percussionist Micah Hummel, the trio create expansive reinterpretations of songs that are already striking in their minimalist approach. What stands out most here is the space that Tivel, Clark, and Hummel create. With songs that feel crushing in their desperation, the voids that Clark and Hummel create and punctuate with precision provide room for hope in the margins of these characters’ lives. Through it all, the smoky clarity of Tivel’s voice provides a confident narrator to guide us through the margins of society.
This change is best demonstrated in “Shadowlands,” originally recorded on Tivel’s previous album The Question. The original recording was punctuated by a prickly percussion line as well, but the Blue World version is pregnant with possibility: Will our narrator free themselves from the mental prison they’ve built? On The Question, the conclusion seems foregone. With the contemplative silences built into the Blue World recording, there is space for ambiguity.
The album concludes with “Blue World,” a moving narrative of what happens when we die. Given the incredible losses we’ve all experienced this year, “Blue World” takes on new meaning as it reaches its transcendent conclusion. The trio send us home with a sparse commingling of their three instruments, inviting us to imagine ourselves floating away into whatever is next.
It’s a sharp turn from Tivel’s previous albums, but a suggestion of what she has in store for us. “Two Dark Horses,” which appears on Blue World, is the lead single off her upcoming album. On it, Tivel turns away from her keen observations of human characters to an attempt to understand the animal mind — and the animals within us. Linking the placidity of two horses in a field to the constant churn of chaos in our headlines, Tivel asks how we’ve moved so far from our natural states. With a sing-songy chant and a cascading piano, “Two Dark Horses” hearkens more to an art song than to folk music, promising a gorgeous transformation ahead in Tivel’s next chapter.