Cult-status indie wordsmith Sage Francis digs deep and blows the black mold off the diary on Li(f)e (Anti-), while enlisting an impressive roster of indie-rock songwriters. Loyal followers of the veteran slam poet/spoken word maestro receive a hot dose of expert wordplay revolving around the lies and hypocrisy teeming throughout everyday life, but Li(f)e also finds Paul “Sage” Francis at the pinnacle of his vividly entertaining, often self-deprecating introspection. This time around his childhood and teenage years are on full display alongside narratives concerning the pro-choice debate, capitalism and corporate greed, organized religion, and just about anything else where lies and deception may burrow. But there is also an undeniable undertone of hope that keeps the album from getting too bogged down.
Francis has made a career firing off scathing commentary with heart staplegunned to sleeve, dating back to his 2002 full-length debut Personal Journals (the prior Sick of . . . mixtape series put him on the map). Li(f)e follows his 2005 Epitaph debut, A Healthy Distrust, and 2007’s Human the Death Dance.
The backdrop composers on Li(f)e include Death Cab for Cutie guitarist Chris Walla, plus members of DeVotchKa, Calexico, and Chicago experimental outfit Califone. But this is absolutely no sort of rap-rock mashup horseshit; in fact, Francis specifically sought artists who had not previously worked with the realm of rap music.
Slow-churner “Little Houdini” (music written by ex-Grandaddy frontman Jason Lytle) opens the album, telling the story of repeated jail escapee Christopher Daniel Gay. The pair of thumping, pogo-inducers with Walla, “Three Sheets To the Wind” and “London Bridge,” should provide a grand highlight when Sage brings it to the stage (backed by Free Moral Agents, led by Ikey Owens of Mars Volta fame). “The Baby Stays” and “Diamonds and Pearls” lurk in deceit and despair, and “16 Years” addresses the pratfalls of adolescence. But it’s the two closing tracks, “Love the Lie” and new single “The Best of Times,” that steal the show with an endearing and uplifting vibe. “Love the Lie” features music composed by Mark Linkous, who committed suicide in March, and a line here like “No legacy to claim, no enemies to squelch/No chemical imbalance that can remedy itself” is now unnerving. And Francis kills with kindness on “The Best of Times,” with music written by French composer Yann Teirsen (of the Amelie soundtrack) and lyrics cranked out in one night under a studio deadline. “This is as close as you can get to a freestyle,” Francis recently told influential BBC supporter Zane Lowe regarding the standout track. He comes out strumming the heartstrings: “An only child with a pen and pad writing a list of things I could never have/Walls in my house were paper thin as the squabbles seemed to get deafening/If my memory serves me correctly I made it a point to void and forget some things.” But the track is too pretty, heartfelt, and nostalgic to end in tragedy, as Francis closes the track and album with “just when you think you got it all figured out and then everything collapses/trust me kid, it’s not the end of the world.”
Sage emailed thoughts on Mark Linkous as we went to print: