The Album Leaf
Which one is sadder, the day before you die or the day itself? Presuming you know death is coming, the answer could be contingent on how well you prepared your soul for the transition into the netherworld. Like most of us, if you haven’t made all your atonements and gotten your spiritual shit in order, Jimmy LaValle is here to stand by your bedside—and not ’til death do we part. LaValle is the mastermind behind the album at hand, Future Falling. Long gone are the days when we’d have to explain that he’s better known as the frontman of essential post-rock posse Tristeza. Since they haven’t released a new album since 2010, LaValle is now best known for his eternally lilting project The Album Leaf.
The San Diego–based project is now in its 25th year—that’s a lot of autumns and winters. Those are the times of year best-suited to LaValle’s designs, which gear toward the sullen like a grocery cart with a broken wheel. He usually hibernates for four to six years between albums; this one comes seven years after its predecessor, with an anniversary edition of 2001’s One Day I’ll Be on Time sandwiched in between. Regardless of how long it’s been since we last spotted The Album Leaf, the project has never sounded as broken and sad as this. But equally essential to the record are the moments of hope that bring temporary joy, like pedestrians occasionally tossing coins into the hat of a busking LaValle.
Oftentimes, Future Falling sounds like the soundtrack to the 12 stages of grief. The mostly instrumental album starts off on a sullen note with the subdued “Prologue” and “Dust Collects.” Flip the record to side B—turn over the new Leaf, so to speak—and the sentiments are similar on songs like “Give In” and “Cycles.” Thankfully, LaValle is one to loyally stick by the grieving—and there’s no escaping him on an Album Leaf record. Like a hospice expert or a Stephen Minister, he offers guidance as death slowly takes hold, the colorful leaves outside the hospital window dancing, somersaulting, and crumbling apart on the ground until their, and our, inevitable demise.
Future Falling does provide some explicit imagery of its own, courtesy of Kimbra and Bat for Lashes providing vocals on “Afterglow” and “Near,” respectively. The brief interventions function a lot like Julee Cruise gently taking the mic on the Twin Peaks soundtrack: They’re not here to save us, just guide us through the grief. “I held you like a present in that childhood bed,” Kimbra sings. “That time we met / One with a loneliness / I began to touch you with my restlessness / One by one.”
Whether or not those lyrics are instructional to someone consoling a dying person, Future Falling is a collection of sad music that isn’t dreary or glum. LaValle is an expert at infusing what could be dirges into hypnotic, calming—even therapeutic—spells, particularly on “Stride” and the title track, which ends with some uplift. Never does LaValle get as dark as, say, Mogwai, even when The Album Leaf sometimes sounds an awfully lot like them (see: “Breathe”). He never goes down the same dark but often gaudy tunnel as Perturbator or other newer instrumental projects inspired by John Carpenter soundtracks.
Still, Future Falling is a lot. As always, LaValle tempers the heavy subject matter to his mostly vocal-free songs with carefully controlled minimalism that assures us we’re in good hands. And that’s not simply a cold comfort: At a time when the future is falling apart, he’s stepped up to show and tell us that it’s going to be alright. And that consistency can sometimes be all we need, even at the worst of times.