Should nothing change over the next couple of months, July will mark one year since Providence’s Sage Francis — who comes to the Middle East this Wednesday — has written or recorded a single verse. For a hip-hop iconoclast prone to writing and analyzing his screeds for years before making them public, that’s a hell of a break. On his blog, Francis has said it’s the longest one he’s ever taken.
GANG STAR: Scrolling through the credits is a trip, but it’s Francis — not his all-star guests — who makes Li(f)e meaningful.
Before that drought, he completed Li(f)e, the just-released CD that’s his final work on Anti- Records. Knowing that Francis’s contract was about to expire, Anti- president Andy Kaulkin encouraged the rapper to use the label’s connections and leave on a high note. Francis took Kaulkin up on his offer by enlisting an array of rock-centric players rather than underground hip-hop producers to craft his backing tracks. His oddest guest arrived at the party late. Two days before recording was to wrap, Francis received a contribution from Yann Tiersen, the French musician best known for scoring Amélie. Tiersen composed a piece so striking that Francis had to include it. That, however, left him one night to write the lyrics.
Francis had to rummage through old material to find something — anything — that could start a fire. He ended up unearthing a letter sent to his girlfriend when he was touring Europe a few years back. The opening phrase — “It’s been a long and lonely trip but I’m glad I took it” — triggered a torrent of memories.
Sage returned to being just Paul Francis, a paranoid, obsessive kid who flirted with suicide. “I don’t remember much from my youth,” he spins on “The Best of Times.” “Maybe my memory is repressed/Or I just spent too much time wondering if I’d live to have sex.” We hear about his fighting parents, his failed therapy, even the time in eighth grade when he stuck a love letter to a long-time crush into the wrong locker. Meanwhile, Tiersen’s lullaby piano sparkles behind Francis’s verses, coating his fractured autobiography with a sweet balm. “The Best of Times” makes for a startling, if imperfect, coda to Li(f)e. It’s “the most epic track I have ever made,” Francis has said. (Amusing when you consider that he needed three years to make the rest of the disc.)
Production is rarely easy, but Li(f)e required an extra dose of TLC. “It took a lot of fishing around to find instrumentalists willing to provide music for a hip-hop artist they probably didn’t even know that well,” he tells me over the phone from Providence. Eventually, the first portions rolled in via Mark Linkous, the now-deceased architect of indie-folk outfit Sparklehorse, who passed along unused demos for the rapper to chop and loop into new form. Linkous’s collaboration enticed other names to come aboard.
Fleshed out with an unlikely cast, the album produces some spectacular results. On “Diamond and Pearls,” DeVotchKa’s elegant, antiquated folk turns ugly when Francis conflates prison imagery with jabs at organized religion. In “Slow Man,” he embraces the notion of getting old atop Calexico’s simmering blues. “Little Houdini” tells the saga of a real-life fugitive as ex-Grandaddy frontman Jason Lytle unravels a gloomy alt-country sprawl. Even Death Cab for Cutie’s Chris Walla makes good, powering “Three Sheets to the Wind” with a tense Les Savy Fav–style guitar line.