When Lost In The Trees set out to record Past Life, their third album for ANTI-, they knew they needed a break with the past. Frontman Ari Picker looked to move beyond the themes of loss that fueled two emotional, densely personal collections of songs. Channeling the liberating happiness he felt in his young marriage into his method, he came up with a new approach to writing: “I wanted to reach out and grab the music rather than have it come from some internal place.” On past releases Picker had used an expanded six-member band to render his carefully composed, classical-inflected songs, bringing them fully arranged to the studio for the band to perform. For the new album, the band was pared to a lean electronic-rock four-piece, and in this new configuration Lost In the Trees took to the road to workshop the songs that would become Past Life. Immediately, the new tracks evidence more than a band pared down; the arrangements are modern, spare, minimal, emphasizing groove and rhythm, blending the sonic architecture of 21st century electronic dance music, the austere emotion of the minimalist composers, and the sensual swerve of post-Bowie 80s pop.
Having crafted the songs to create a maximum impact in a live setting, the band made their next break with past practice, electing to work with an outside producer for the first time. Nicolas Vernhes, whose credits include breakthrough albums from Deerhunter, Dirty Projectors, Animal Collective, and Wild Nothing, endorsed the band’s new minimal aesthetic, and the question in the studio became, “How much can we strip away?” With an approach that forefronts beats and basslines, Vernhes and the band lift away the orchestral density of the previous albums – the emotional analog of Picker’s intense lyrics – leaving a more direct framework of soul-inflected guitar lines, throbbing groove, and Picker’s soaring vocal hooks.
Fans that came to the band lured by the lush classicism of All Alone In An Empty House and A Church That Fits Our Needs (the Wall Street Journal’s album of the year in 2012) will not be disappointed. After all, the band are known for their unique orchestral sound, and Church, with its intense narrative of loss, drew lavish praise from all quarters, both as an “exquisite exercise in the seduction of melancholy” (Iowa Press-Citizen) and “a stirring blend of modest rusticity and urbane ambition” (New York Times). The haunting lyricism of Picker’s voice and melodies has not diminished in the new sparer approach, but instead rises to the fore, bringing out that timeless quality of the melodies that is the common ground of both folk and pop music. This pop quality, buried but always present in previous efforts, shines on Past Life; not pop in any trivial, retro sense, but the yearning lilt of Harry Nilsson or Mark Hollis, that floating melodicism that Relix found so “achingly beautiful.”
Picker, for one, is pleased to be moving on from the highly personal lyrics of the previous albums to more universal themes. He singles out “Glass Harp” from the new album, describing it as “a half awake song to my wife,” adding that it may be “as much of a love song as I can write.” On “Daunting Friend” Picker promises his companion “we’ll float around the town,” a cinematic image that recalls the romantic mysticism of Wings of Desire more than it does any past Lost In The Trees lyric. This new openness in Picker’s imagist lyrics – loose, joyful, embracing – tends on Past Life toward meditations on what Picker describes as “recognizing impermanence,” all rendered by Lost In The Trees’ greatest instrument (perhaps overshadowed in the past by the violins and harps): Picker’s profound tenor voice. The voice the New York Times called the “essential embodiment of vulnerability” becomes on Past Life the load-bearing wall – it’s a burden this extraordinary instrument, and Picker, are more than ready to take on.