Album Review: Case Studies – This Is Another Life

[Sacred Bones; 2013]

Case Studies was never just a solo project for Jesse Lortz who before found fame in the Duchess and the Duke. Rather, Lortz has rather grand ambitions for it, aiming to make it something of a community project where fans would learn the songs via video tutorials and when Lortz hit their part of town, they’d all play together, making for an invigorating and different experience each time. These performances would be what made up a Case Studies record, and those players would then be responsible for handing over the tracks to musician friends. This actually kind of worked, and the results can be heard on 2011’s The World is Just a Shape to Fill the Night as a small group of players gathered to perform Lortz’s penned memories and life lessons.

There does seem to be an inherent problem with how far this could go. The World was a surprisingly heartfelt and dramatic album that managed to pull at the heartstrings and reveal Lortz as real human being with dark thoughts of death and despair. And somehow, even with occasional tape hiss and clipping microphones, and the presence of others in a close setting, Lortz managed to channel and capture something that came off personal and desolate. Interpretations would be interesting to hear, but how long would it be before the enveloping sound of a man alone with his guitar is lost to the sound of “a tuba playing a bass part, or ten children singing the lead vocals”?

Lortz’s lyrics aren’t the kind that beg for louder proclamations via the sound of a beefed backing band, yet this is what the new Case Studies album boasts. Instead of acoustic guitars jangling away as sparse percussion and cooing female vocalists create an almost haunted atmosphere, This Is Another Life is based moreso on upright piano via arrangements by Jon Parker, but also gives way to a band that will couple Case Studies with Bonnie “Prince” Billy, or a downbeat Mount Moriah with a male vocalist. It’s hard to know exactly what to make of it. As much as I would have loved to have seen Lortz serve up another disturbed take of lovelorn death balladry full of texture, it can be hard to desire your favourite songwriters to dig deeper. Make no mistake, Lortz is still downtrodden here, but musically and every so often in his lyrics, he sounds like he’s moving forward with his life. And with the album title stating this quite clearly, that is to be expected.

Still, working one’s way out of a depression of any sorts is always an uphill struggle, and the content on This Is Another Life shows that. Most of the tracks here are turgid slow-moving dirges that take a little patience as well as a little optimism. Some are harder to make it through than others, like the metaphor-heavy “A Beast I Have Yet To Find,” which may well be Lortz lamenting on how hard it is to come up with the perfect words, or “House of Silk, House of Stone” that boasts some gorgeous piano melodies as delicate as the titular material, but otherwise remains vacant. Others find a moment of release or realisation, but the climax never feels entirely worth it. “You Say To Me, You Never Have To Ask” builds to some backtracked guitar effects as Lortz pleads “say it again” over and over; it’s dramatic, but it doesn’t feel entirely honest, mainly off put by the unconvincing idea to “pretend we’re alone” as a band churns out blocky music behind Lortz and his guitar.

It’s understandable that less should feel like it’s on the line here, and consequently for Lortz to sound less like he’s on a knife edge, but too often or not he sounds like he’s trying in some roundabout way to emulate the desperation of The World. It’s actually on the bonus track “Like the Sea” that his performance is at its most moving, sounding like he’s near-enough breaking down as he recounts his dreams that gradually go from excessively violent to surreal. There are a few examples of there being a good middle ground: “Passage / Me in the Dark” is one of the best instances, if not one of the album’s most appealing tracks, building over six minutes like an Edgar Allan Poe tale of a disturbed forlorn man sat alone in his room. Come the final verse he sounds like he’s appealing with his most human side (“You don’t have to take your dress off/ to be my family for the night”) before sinking into reality: “We are not ghosts/ We were never here at all.” Opening track “In a Suit Made of Ash” makes the mission statement as it reaches its final line, which turns out to be the album’s title, sung as Lortz’s voice sounds like it’s about to crack, like he’s washing away a set of bad memories.

It’s when Lortz actually comes to a modest conclusion that he sounds more suited to everything else on offer here. The music on This Is Another Life isn’t the kind that boasts colour, or even deep and dark hues, but rather is full of big strokes of dull greys. There are moments when things take a trip into the major key and they do bring a little light to the proceedings, like the bustling handclap jangle of “From Richard Brautigan” or the sunshine-faded electric guitar streaks of “Driving East, and Through Her” where Lortz’s storytelling is on fine form. But otherwise by delving into this album you’re wandering into a place that’ll sound familiar to those overcast days.

Regarding those conclusions, though: it’s evident that Lortz does want to move on from the darkest recesses of his mind, but he’ll likely never been entirely free of them. Not only are they one of his most appealing features – both lyrically and musically – it’s what makes him human. On the title track he offers his most optimistic and modest appeal: “I changed my name my number and address/ But I haven’t gone too far/ You can find me if you want to, I guess.” It’s almost like he’s tired of looking at life through a veil of mourning, but he also accepts that his fate is set:

“I wonder if there will come a day
when I let my light shine?
I have shaded it from my own eyes
I wonder if it’s still alive.
There was a time
I could climb
into the nearest tree
and see my future unfolding out up ahead.
Then I’d fall, just to find
that, foolishly, I’d tied
a noose around my head.”

He’s only human after all. We all make mistakes.