It takes the bold and broken to imagine the art that lies beyond, just out of our experience. Even under the most tragic of circumstances many understand death as a beginning—a beginning that is shrouded in mystery, possibility, and beauty. It can be an invitation to wonder for those who possess a less than nihilistic outlook on life. Ari Picker, the lead songwriter of the North Carolina pop-orchestral group Lost in the Trees, is one of those people. I have no idea which (if any) specific religious tradition he claims as his own, but his latest musical offering is ripe with the conviction that there is more to life than what humans normally experience. The recent suicide of his mother provided the impetus for their new album A Church That Fits Our Needs. She took her own life soon after attending his wedding in 2009. Given this fact, an unexpected lack of despair is conveyed throughout this musical offering.
For an album about death, it is surprisingly more ripe with astonishment than macabre. The contours of the soundscape are wide-eyed, pairing understated vocals with forward momentum and orchestration. The melodies both surprise and refuse to be predictable. Repeated listenings reveal the wandering (yet peaceful) resolve that is communicated through a mix of frail vocals, lush strings, and an undercurrent of percussion. A Church That Fits Our Needsbursts with the same melodic interplay that makes later Radiohead extraordinary. “Tall Ceilings” is an example of a tune that echoes this Radiohead ascetic (minus bleeping electronic elements). In this case, the melodies appropriately feel as if they are searching for a bright resolution. This continues through the whimsical play of the strings in “Golden Eyelids” to the ethereal background vocals on “This Dead Bird Is Beautiful”. The acoustic leanings of a sensitive singer-songwriter become vaulted in the context of the accompanying strings and choir of background vocals. Unique stuff that is part of the expanding “post-minimal” movement combining elements of pop and classical. These mixed elements are particularly strong on the track “Garden” on which the interplay of the strings and percussion hit a crescendo. Similarly, “Red” and “Neither Here Nor There” subtly expand beyond what even Andrew Bird has been able to achieve combining folk and classical impulses. “This Dead Bird is Beautiful” is the most heartbreaking and cathartic track. Ari Picker achieves a vulnerability that is not self serving. The space he has created for his mother goes beyond him even as he sings, “She has my eyes…she showed her heart”. The minimal instrumentation builds to a crescendo of floating operatic cries that haunt as they heal.
As previously mentioned, many of the pieces are not full of the tension and grief one might expect from an album inspired by the suicide of a loved one. There is more distance than denial, more contemplation and release than brooding sadness. Ari has said that he, “…can’t really satisfy (himself) just thinking that she went to heaven.” By and large, we live in a culture that has a limited imagination for what may lie beyond the grave. It might be argued that religious traditions have often lacked this imagination as well. Many are left unsatisfied by easily understood explanations of the realms words cannot express. There is a hint of something more satisfying in Ari’s attempt to express such mysteries between these notes. What he paints is a picture of his mother rising from the dead to fulfill all of her potential, a fullness that exists only after death. This kind of freedom is a beautiful thing to listen to.
At its best pop music can contribute to culture by begging such questions and realizing its inability as a medium to provide thorough or satisfying answers. At its worst it can seduce the masses into banality, distraction, and despair. This kind of album is an example of the best kind. Some may overlook this release because of its blatant contemplation of death and the assumption of an afterlife. And I am sure there will be conflicting opinions among critics about whether or not this album is too therapeutic, but great art is both particular and universal. This is that. On one level it may lack some of the grit and hook of a classic album, but it still does a fabulous job of begging questions of deepest meaning. It imagines a life bigger and beyond the cesspools we live in, but it also speaks to the beauty in everyday existence. It is a hopeful reminder that pop music has the power and relevance to comment on ultimate things in a meaningful way. Ari and friends seem convinced that death is more about the possibility of slipping into a new story than ceasing to be. This may be one of the best records of the year so far.