Seven years ago, Sage Francis first presented the core idea of Li(f)e. In his song, “The Cure,” on Non-Prophets’ album, Hope, Francis said, “Life is just a lie with an ‘f’ in it, and death is definite.” This sobering maxim was profound enough to inspire a friend of mine to emblazon a stylized LI[F]E on her arm. Now, after several albums, Francis reprises this notion as the core to his latest indie star-studded release. Whereas Hope was rooted in traditional hip-hop, Li(f)e takes a cue from his 2005 single, “Sea Lion,” and employs the talents of musicians not usually associated with Francis’ typical genre. On the surface, Li(f)e seems a sure fire winner. With contributions from Calexico, Califone, Chris Walla, Jason Lytle, and Devotchka, and a striking album cover by Shepard Fairey, Li(f)e had potential written all over it.
One could argue whether this project is a bold step in a new direction or a natural progression of Francis’ already expansive palate. I won’t argue either side, though I applaud his decision to continue to push the boundaries of hip-hop with each successive release. Francis has always been somewhat unconventional. Whether sampling Mr. Mister’s “Broken Wings” or going as far as to karaoke / lip-synch to the song at shows, he’s shown equal sides of humor and absurdity to balance with the serious nature of his lyrical poetry. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be much of either extreme on Li(f)e. Instead, Sage tends to teach us that being earnest isn’t all that important as most of the tracks fall flat.
It’s not that the collaborations aren’t planned with good intentions; it’s just that they don’t mesh together as well as you’d think. Interestingly, because Francis is at his most effective when he’s amped, it’s the rock songs in which he falters on Li(f)e. Chris Walla collaborates with Francis on “Three Sheets to the Wind” and “London Bridge,” both ending up sounding more like Offspring or 311 than the brilliant composition we might anticipate from such a pairing. The opening track, “Little Houdini,” backed by Jason Lytle, though usually sounding like a good bet because it’s a story-song that is Francis’ usual forte, comes off less like an outtake from Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska and more like a very special episode of Cops. Tim Fite helps Francis find his inner Tom Waits, but even that track makes him sound less like a tin-pan-alley poet than a fussy old crank.
There are some highlights from the album, the best being the dynamic closer, “The Best of Times.” No, it’s not a humorous sampling of Styx, but instead the most unexpected successful collaboration on the album, this one with Yann Tiersen, the composer of Amelie. In it, Francis is at his most honest, speaking about his adolescent years in as frank and self-deprecating a manner as Sherman Alexie in his teenage novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. “Diamonds & Pearls,” with Devotchka, and “Love the Lie,” a now tragic composition with the late Mark Linkous, are also standouts. But, this album, with its ‘about as expansive as you can get’ topic of life, love, experience and everything in between, feels less like incisive observation and more about pop psychology. Where Personal Journals and Human the Death Dance succeed, this album merely becomes a cartoon: at times an entertaining one, but one that smacks of missed opportunities.
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