One would be forgiven for balking at a title like Li(f)e, which is heavy-handed in both implication and rendering, but Sage Francis has come by it pretty legitimately. Subtlety isn’t his thing these days — which is a shame, in that he’s more than gifted enough as a lyricist to keep on making his heady, refined Anticon-era noodle-scratchers — but it’s a decision he made a few albums ago and it’s one worth respecting, because he’s been tackling unsubtle problems and doing it well. If he says he’s here to talk about life, and how you can’t live it without confronting a lie or two, he deserves the benefit of the doubt.
And indeed, Li(f)e is an unabashedly big-scoped hodgepodge of afflictions and meditations and indictments, cautionary memoirs and smirking abstractions. Francis isn’t really angry this time out, as on, say, A Healthy Distrust, nor is he trying to outdo himself in quotability, as on, say, Hope. This album is fueled by, and commentary on, the darker parts of modern life — the lies, shall we say — but our host/narrator is comfortable with his perspective therein: a smart, honest curmudgeon who gets to moralize because he’s been there, too. He’s unflinching when he rises to confess — see “The Best of Times” and its litany of juvenile crises, or the vintage Francis high-concept gross-out “I Was Zero” (“I heard God is coming, and she’s a screamer”) — but confession and outrageousness aren’t the primary mandates.
More striking at first glance is Li(f)e’s country-fried roots vibe, where hip hop as such is mostly relegated to twangy rock tracks with the drums turned up real loud. Francis worked across the aisle with the likes of Tim Rutilli and Chris Walla, and track to track the album is as varied and textural sonically as it is lyrically. For the most part this plays into the working-class, bad-mustached road hero persona he’s been cultivating — which, again, is too bad in the sense that it globally gives short shrift to his quieter gifts, like cadence and rhyme, but these are represented well enough; the tracks that seem most likely to overreach — “Polterzeitgeist” (“fuck to forget and call it ‘layaway’”) and the snide state-of-the-world “London Bridge” — end up being the most affecting.
The calculated standout is “Best of Times,” a childhood recollection spat to a lush, slow-building Yann Tiersen track so heartstring-tugging you can see the stop motion video. It’s a serious, earnest “lighten up, kid” that returns to Francis’s strongest mode, the slightly stilted personal journal; like the rest of Li(f)e it’s honest, sometimes brutally so, occasionally just brutal, and it’s hard to ask for more than that. When the song hurtles to its climax and he begins to preach outright — “Don’t listen when they tell you these are your best years / Don’t let anybody protect your ears” — the expected grimace moment never comes: it’s just human and reasonable and wise, the potential excesses made worthwhile because he’s earned both the authority and the indulgence.