The first thing that pisses me off about Li(f)e, the new album by Sage Francis, is that its title is a reference to a line in one of his best songs, “The Cure” – “Life is just a lie with an f in it/ but death is definite”. He did that song with Joey Beats as Non-Prophets. Their only album, Hope, is a self-described “hip-hop book report” that also happens to be an insanely good hip-hop record. Since then, however, Sage Francis has fallen off a little in the quality department. Okay, a lot. 2005’s A Healthy Distrust had a couple really good tracks and a bunch of self-involved nonsense, and Francis’s formerly awesome political musings ratcheted up to a more-radical-than-thou self-righteousness that saw him pissing on people who most likely attended his shows while he was rapping over a Discman. Scolding your fans for not stopping a war that you also didn’t stop is a bit much, Sage. Just sayin’.
The second thing that pisses me off about Li(f)e is pretty much every track on the album. Basically, since Non-Prophets released Hope way back in 2003, Sage Francis has crawled increasingly far up his own ass and, sadly, he seems to like the view just fine where he is, thank you very much. Rumor has it he’s building a studio in there for all future releases.
Li(f)e is Sage Francis’s indie-rock record, featuring collaborations with a supposedly all-star cast of Pitchfork darlings, including members of Califone, Calexico, and Death Cab for Cutie’s Chris Walla. The instrumentation is fine, but I can’t help feeling like Sage Francis is ripping off the Gym Class Heroes, who definitely started out ripping off him. The choruses on Li(f)e are uniformly embarrassing (“Three Sheets to the Wind” is a perfect example), and so are a lot of the lyrics (“when I came out my mama/ I was zero” is not the level of cleverness I expect from the guy who wrote “Disasters.” Or “Damage.” Or “Hey Bobby.” And, sadly, “I Was Zero” is one of the more listenable tracks on Li(f)e). The choruses suffer because they inhabit an often cringe-inducing no man’s land between rapping and singing, which is only party due to the fact that Sage Francis can’t really sing (the chorus/intro to “Worry Not” will give you a good example of what I’m talking about if you can make that deep into Li(f)e).
It might be easier to forgive Li(f)e’s musical missteps if I could shake the feeling that Sage Francis has been treading thematic water since 2003 or 2004. Guess what? Mr. Francis is skeptical of organized religion and doesn’t respect authority. Also, he’s concerned that his personal baggage (first alluded to on Personal Journals, which was a good album) will endanger his romantic relationships. In other words, there’s nothing on Li(f)e that you didn’t hear better on Hope and worse on every Sage Francis album since then.
The final track on 2005’s wildly uneven (read: bad) A Healthy Distrust is an embarrassing wanna-be country tune called “Jah Didn’t Kill Johnny,” which was conceived as some sort of tribute to the late (and undoubtedly great) Johnny Cash. It took Sage Francis a few years to get there, but “Jah Didn’t Kill Johnny” foretold the coming of Li(f)e. What’s worse is the sad fact that Li(f)e, like “Jah,” reveals Sage Francis to be at least 50% poser. He seems to have decided sometime around 2005 that he wants to be some kind of hip-hop “Man in Black” and the shtick becomes more contrived with every outing. Johnny Cash’s boots are way too big for anyone to fill, and the attempt leaves Li(f)e feeling more than a little dishonest, which is something I’ve never really detected in other Sage Francis records, even ones I didn’t like.
Do you remember Dee-Dee Ramone’s hip-hop album? No, you don’t. Nobody does. Because it sucked and Dee-Dee should’ve stuck with what he was good at, namely awesome punk rock. Even Sage Francis’s bad hip-hop albums, which now unfortunately outnumber his good ones (Personal Journals managed to somehow be self-involved without being tiresome, a feat Francis has yet to duplicate outside of Non-Prophets), are better than the singy/speaky dreck that makes up Li(f)e. An astute yet still asshole-ish reader might argue that I’m creating a double-standard because I love the Hold Steady and doesn’t Craig Finn sing/speak all over their first two albums? The answer is, “Fuck you.” Just kidding. The answer is that not all sing/speaking is created equal. Craig Finn was saying amazing shit on those first two Hold Steady records, and the style of the music fit what he was doing. At its best, Li(f)e sounds like a prototypical indie rock record where the whiny tenor is replaced by Sage Francis’s gruff solipsism/poser-outlaw routine.
There was a time when Sage Francis and Non-Prophets and maybe MF Doom (now just DOOM) were my sole sources of hope for good hip-hop. I’ve found a lot more great hip-hop since 2003 – Atmosphere and Brother Ali come to mind. Ali’s Us was one of 2009’s best albums and Atmosphere’s When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint that Shit Gold was one of 2008’s finest. Interestingly enough, the latter record featured a lot of live, rock-style instrumentation without surrendering tight hip-hop grooves. If you think you might like what Sage Francis is attempting on Li(f)e, check out “Guarantees” from When Life Gives You Lemons. That one song puts Li(f)e to shame, and a head to head comparison between albums would be pretty damaging indeed to Mr. Francis. For the last two years, I’ve joked that Atmosphere picked up the ball that Sage Francis dropped, but the little seed of truth in that joke has grown into a lush forest of reasons to listen to Atmosphere instead of Sage Francis. In fact, just now, I stopped listening to Li(f)e and put on When Life Gives You Lemons. I’m sorry if you were expecting a more complete review of the new Sage Francis album, but I’m pretty sure I’m not going back to it.