To be alive is to be beset by death. You can ignore that fact, obsess on it or let it motivate you. Philadelphia's Andrew Lipke gets this, and he uses it as fuel for his songs.
His third album, "Motherpearl & Dynamite," begins and ends with glimpses of mortality; in between, he marches slowly but steadily toward the light. Lipke's fascination with the end of relationships, the subject of so many of his songs, provides a compass for the journey.
The disc opens with "On My Way," a tense pairing of banjo, acoustic guitar and sorrowful vocals. Death lurks on the periphery, but the narrator's more concerned with his own heartbreak than external tragedies.
"Bodies broken by the roadside/Sad to say, it's nothing new to me," Lipke sings. "I offer up a piece of advice/You close your eyes, you'll never have to see."
Of course, walking through life with your eyes closed is impractical, and grasping blindly for something to hold on to won't protect you from pain.
At the other end is "Only a Minute," a lovely, languorous ode to the brevity of our condition. Andy Keenan's mournful pedal steel underscores Lipke's quiet gratitude for the time we're afforded and his reminder to make the most of it.
"You thought you were dyin' young," he sings. "You thought you would be someone/You thought you would love somethin'/You thought you had time."
Who among us hasn't felt the contradiction of feeling at once limited and limitless?
That's the nature of being trapped in a body and having no experience without it, but it's more than that. When we're young, we think we'll do everything we want before we get old and gross.
From an immature perspective, leaving a good-looking corpse is better than the alternative. But too many of us run out of steam somewhere in between. It's hard to accomplish all you'd planned when you're worn out from long workdays, personal disappointments and the hazards of getting from Point A to Point B.
Guess we all walk through our lives with our eyes closed at least some of the time. The trick is to stop thinking you can do everything tomorrow if only you catch up on sleep today. Flip the script.
Evanescence isn't just a lyrical preoccupation for Lipke. You can hear it in his vocals; they're high and fluttery, hard to pin down and effortless to slip into. It's a pleasure to inhabit his world for a while, but he doesn't outstay his welcome.
Over the course of 41 minutes, Lipke chases elusive emotional connections through eight original tunes and an apt cover of Neil Young's "After the Gold Rush." Slow songs like "Forgive and Forget" have subtle shades of country, while Lipke's rock influences dominate the epic "Mindgames" and the brash "The Barker Song."
His band, the Prospects, is tight and flexible; they can be nearly invisible during more intimate numbers, but are capable of driving an extended instrumental stretch. Cellist Krista Nielsen, drummer Dave Perrin and guitarist Joe Vasile work together particularly well on "Mindgames," matching Lipke's amazingly controlled howls and pleas in menace and power.
But Lipke, who has played piano and guitar for most of his life, is the main attraction. Album No. 3 is a big leap for the South African native, exceeding expectations set by "The Way Home," which came out only last year. (Both CDs were released by Mad Dragon, Drexel University's student-run record label.)
Produced by Drexel professor Jim Klein, "The Way Home" has a few promising moments, but it lacks the sustained strength of "Motherpearl & Dynamite."