Hailing from Portland, Heroes Waking Up is Anna Tivel’s third album, but probably the first to get much exposure on these shores. She certainly warrants discovery, her breathy whispery voice, sparse instrumentation and songs of hope, love , loss and struggle weave a beguiling, intimate, sepia-toned magic that’s sympathetically captured by producer Austin Nevins, who also contributes guitars, banjo, lap steel and pump organ.
With instrumentation that also features bassist Sam Moody, percussionist Robin Macmillan and Ian Kirst on vibraphone with Tivel, who modestly puts herself last in the musician credits, adding violin as well as acoustic guitar.
The album opens with Look Away, which, at first hearing seems like a love song, but, as you explore lines like “under your eyelids, it’s quiet, it’s safe, but he stole the sun from where it lay on your face” suggests some sort of abuse and an encouragement to overcome hardships.
Everything here is testament to her storytelling gifts (she’s been likened to Steinbeck and I suspect she may have a novel or short stories collection in her) with her finely drawn characters and observations of an emotional life that ranges from defiance to regret, joy to sadness. Defiance is certainly at the heart of Black Balloon, the allegorical, almost American Gothic, tale of a man defying a storm, refusing to abandon his house, climbing to his roof, “a hungry man, with his arms out on the turret” only to be taken up by the winds “like a black balloon, rising higher and higher in the storm he flew like a warning beacon, like the rectitude, like fire.”
From here she moves to The Lines and the Tide, tender account of a daughter remembering her father as she reflects and ponders about whether to move on or stay where she is “and count how I’m blessed.” Her terrific ability to conjure a scene is brilliantly evidenced as she describes “an old box of tools and a bible, a coffee can half full of dreams, the scar of a name carved so careful, in the side of an evergreen, the sweet smell of diesel and lumber, and leather gloves worn by the wind.”
Dial Tone speaks of loneliness as she sings “you do all your talking, in a one way telephone just a lonely voice that craves the sound of its echo”, while, framed by melancholic violin and acoustic guitar, Slow Motion, from whence comes the album title, captures a perfect true moment in a world where “dreaming sometimes dresses like regret and better men have failed to get the light working.”
Poignancy is to the fore on Lillian & Martha, a moving short story in song about a longtime lesbian couple who, following the legalisation of same sex unions, are, after 50 years, finally able to marry (“down the stair comes Lillian, a promise kept, a band of gold”), although their happiness is tempered by their fading health.
On the dreamy Reverie, as dusk crowds in and the homeless gather to spend night in the park, the narrator clings to hope amid “the garbage and cigarettes” as she declares “I’m here hoping for what I can’t hold, for some kind of sign from above…and I don’t got nothing but two empty hands and this slow burning flame of a heart.”
Things turn a shade darker for Two Pencils And A Photograph, smokily sung in the voice of one of those involved in the 2015 attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris as they question their actions with “ it’s an awful shame to watch a paper fall, from a stranger’s hand, where’s the glory in all of that, couple pencils and a photograph.”
The cost of war on the soul (“will you taste what I have tasted, would you feel what I have felt, I don’t need you to erase it, I just need a little help”) is also to be found in the heartbreaking Shadow Of A Son, a sketch of desolation sandwiched between the lilting slow waltzing Rainbow and Ridges and its acceptance that “some days you win, some days you lose….some don’t get any, some get to choose” and the closing Wild Blue Field, a sparse, folk ballad underpinned by meditative guitar and minimal piano notes about the power of love to heal and free you from the fears and darkness of the world, as she ends on the image of “a beautiful highway where lovers have been and the wild blue field where they dream.”
A simple, but deeply touching and, ultimately, optimistic contemplation of life, recollected in quiet moments, seeing the beauty through the sadness, this is a superb and sublime album from a voice that deserves to be shouted from the highest rooftops. Long may her heart burn this bright.
Heroes Waking Up is out now via Fluff and Gravy
Order it via Bandcamp