It’s in times of the greatest turmoil and upheaval that we turn to and lean on the topmost songwriters of our time for solace, perspective, and understanding. When our leaders are letting us down, and everything in society seems bifurcated from the perverse incentives put on politics and media to keep us divided and warring with each other, it is wordsmiths and music that seem uniquely gifted to break through the noise to the wisdom we’ve all forgotten, and need reminding of. This is the reason Jimmy Carter once said that Bob Dylan had a greater impact on society than he ever did.
When you’re looking for the most potent and gifted of today’s songwriters, Portland, Oregon’s Anna Tivel deserves inclusion in that camp right beside the James McMurtry’s and John Moreland’s of the music world. Though not as well-known or venerated as others—at least not yet—she’s proven in the past to be worthy of being enumerated among that elite class. And with her new album, Outsiders, Anna Tivel codifies that assessment, while offering cunning antidotes to the societal ailments plaguing the here and now.
Certainly not a “country” album, and not even especially rootsy as a folk one, Outsiders nonetheless demands the attention of anyone in search for important songwriting that resets perspectives and soothes worried minds. The title track evokes the moon landing and the perspective of looking back on that ball of blue we all share drifting through space as a reminder of how together and fragile we all truly are, and how infinitesimal our dilemmas can be in comparison to the cosmos. “Pausing the burning of cities to say we are beautiful when we believe,” the Portland resident concludes in the song.
The first four songs of this album are a tour de force of songcraft, with the second song “Black Umbrella” perhaps being the most powerful, illustrating how the conclusions we draw from quick, surface observances can be so misleading, and sometimes, so detrimental, told through the allegory of a bank robbery. Take note, professed activist artists, this is how you compel hearts and minds to soften barriers hardened over time, and breed a better understanding among people.
The song “Astrovan” is significantly less ambitious as more of a love story, but it’s the detail and nuance within that story which renders it just as enrapturing. This leads to “Heroes,” which takes a gripping and merciless assessment of the decay of influences and mentors, which is especially relevant in the realm of music. “Your heroes grow unruly. They overdose or just leave. Their lives are fucked up movies. And you’ve studied every one,” Anna Tivel sings, with the important observation of how the same mistakes get conferred from one generation to the next.
The second half of Outsiders becomes a bit more fey and tough to follow, while the musical approach is somewhat inconsistent throughout. Rich in tone from being recorded directly to tape, the music searches for a compass point, sometimes finding true north and roiling emotions in a blissful union with the lyric like in “Black Umbrella,” and other times somewhat failing to make its point.
With such brilliant songwriting and impassioned deliveries from Anna Tivel, not much else is needed, and when not much else is supplied, this is where Outsiders finds its sweet spot, perhaps embellished lightly by the guitar playing and harmonies of fellow singer/songwriter Courtney Hartman, or graced with simple keyboard ambiance. But similar to John Moreland’s recent album Birds in the Ceiling—though not nearly as pronounced—the temptation to meddle with otherwise perfectly fine recordings by adding inorganic beeps results in polarizing directions for some songs.
But when everything aligns for Anna Tivel, little else is rendered with such powerful notions, including the song “Ruins,” which burrows deep into why we don’t allow forgiveness to others, and how it is a failure upon ourselves. Attempting to disarm all of our modern impulses ingrained by ideology and reinforced by algorithms is both Anna’s goal, and her accomplishment. Passionately delivering lessons that inspire a dispassionate reflection on life, Outsiders is like a dip in a cool river, or a succession of slow, deep breaths.
Wickedly powerful in moments, Outsiders might be more of an album with some great songs as opposed to a great album. But Anna Tivel is not one to trifle with in the songwriting realm, already with a respected catalog, and now with more additions that make a convincing case for her as one of the premier writers and performers defining the modern folk category.
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