Ari Picker’s awareness of the cinematic, of music’s ability to suggest or augment narrative and image, has been the thread running through Lost in the Tree’s last three releases, despite lineup changes and a general genre drift from complexly orchestrated folk to complexly orchestrated pop. Past Life, its lyrics culled from poems Picker wrote at art galleries, is fundamentally a reflective work, but a spectral narrative crops up as well. As Picker told Rolling Stone, “I was really drawn to the image of individuals passing through light and into shadow, this kind of fleeting glimpse.” That chiaroscuro aesthetic plays out in juxtapositions throughout the album, like in the odd formal relationship between sequencers and orchestral instrumentation, or the almost sexual tension between a throbbing, guttural synthesizer and pianist Emma Nadeau’s treble arpeggios on the standout “Wake.”
The compositions on Past Life rely more on an evocation of space than actual expansiveness. The band, dropping from six or seven members to only four, has likewise reduced its propensity for sonic ornamentation, replacing it with meticulous and taut arrangements propelled by distant, urgent beats, devoid of self-indulgence though not experimentation. Even when the album’s textures evoke a Bauhaus piece, Picker’s serene, warm tenor keeps the proceedings from sounding sterile or severe. This new refinement and focus results in a spare, skewed variation on pop, with the fragility of Picker’s vocals and lyrics providing the album’s atmosphere and the stiff drive of the drum machine its center. Leaving behind Picker’s previous musical attachments to the folk rhythms of Béla Bartók and the sentimentality of sprawling Romantic composers, Past Life borrows more from the minimalism of contemporary classical and the hazy layers of shoegaze; the result is an ethereal sonic cocktail with a decided kick, like something the Cocteau Twins mixed up with Philip Glass.
While Picker has frequently used his band as an expressive platform to explore his personal grief, the mechanistic pulse of sampled percussion on Past Life may signal a new trend toward the impersonal for the band’s founder, or at least toward some lighter emotions. Lost in the Trees’ previous album, A Church That Fits Our Needs, meditated gracefully on the loss of Picker’s mother to suicide, but it occasionally felt uncomfortably personal; a photo of Picker’s mother was used for the album’s cover, and her voice cropped up on a couple of the tracks. Picker’s lyrics had the characteristic quality of making it seem that anything, especially the things that should bring comfort, could lead to hurt. Although plenty of Past Life’s lyrics still linger on images of death, the metaphors are more writerly than confessional, leavened by an occasional wryness, as on “Past Life”: “We were killers in a past life/But it turned out all right.”
Past Life is a subtle album and, in the general absence of hooks, it offers understated pleasures, augmented by Nicolas Vernhes’s production: the sublimated shoegaze guitar figures hidden under layers of Nadeau’s operatic soprano on “Night Walker”; the synth-nightmare drones of “Daunting Friend”; the deft overlay of brushes and woodblocks on “Sun”; even the brazenness of the opening riff on “Upstairs,” which is a dead ringer for Radiohead’s “House of Cards.” In “Rites,” over the eerie dissonance of Nadeau’s lyric-less vocals, Picker complains to a nameless lover, “I’m disappearing.” But he’s being far too modest. In Past Life, Lost in the Trees has constructed a cinematic universe, filled with birds, angels, empty rooms of light, and lonely lovers. It’s an evocative and precise success, with plenty to linger over.