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Case Studies - The World is Just a Shape to Fill the Night

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Artist: Case Studies

Album: The World is Just a Shape to Fill the Night

Label: Sacred Bones

Review date: Aug. 19, 2011

In a short interview I recently conducted with Jesse Lortz, formerly of The Dutchess and The Duke and now known as Case Studies, he referred to his solo debut, The World is Just a Shape to Fill the Night, as “a narrative of events over the course of one year.” If so, it’s been a rough one. The irreverence and wry tone he exuded with dutchess Kimberly Morrison are largely missing, replaced by a noticeable shift in emphasis toward the intense and confessional.

At first listen, there seems to be plenty in common with his past work. As with the second (and final) Dutchess and The Duke album, Sunset/Sunrise, The Gris Gris’s Greg Ashley was involved on the production side. Some of the songs might fit on Lortz’s past albums, particularly “My Silver Hand” and the harmonies on its refrain, “If I took back my silver hand / could we go back and start again?” “The Eagle, or the Serpent” shares a metaphor with Sunset/Sunrise‘s “Scorpio.” But in contrast with that song’s pained yearning, the tone here is bitter, fueled by lines that read like denunciations or painful moments of self-recognition: “This skin is just a mask I wear for now so I can recognize my face.” The World is Just a Shape to Fill the Night abounds with these you’s and I’s, and after looking closely at the lyrics, the lines between the two seem to blur.

Other songs on the album come off as more straightforward accusations. “You’ve sharpened your blade on hearts before,” sings Lortz on “California Ghost Story.” And “Secrets,” on which he sounds particularly tortured, his delivery of “There ain’t no reason you should cry, cry, cry, cry,” seems at once mocking of its target and suspicious of the rock-lyric template it embraces. Yet, Lortz doesn’t let himself off much easier: “If I was a man, I might take the time to set things right, to walk the right road. / But I ain’t a man,” he sings on “Animals.”

While Lortz’s body of work as a songwriter has grown larger, The World is Just a Shape to Fill the Night may occupy a spot similar to the one Get Lonely owns in The Mountain Goats’ more varied discography. But for now, with much of the dark humor that characterized Lortz’s work with Morrison absent, it isn’t clear if this is an isolated foray into bleaker territory, or the beginning of a full-on immersion. It would be incorrect to say that Lortz hasn’t tapped into similar themes of isolation and despair before — notably, on The Dutchess and The Duke’s “Reservoir Park” and “The River.” But the determination on display here has pushed other aspects of Lortz’s songwriting into the background; they’re missed here.

That said, the pair of songs that close The World is Just a Shape to Fill the Night showcase Lortz exploring new facets of the moods he chronicled during the previous nine songs. “California Ghost Story” makes use of some ethereal vocal interplay and plays out in a haunting register he had only circled in the past. “The Day We Met” forgoes first- and second-person narratives for a more archetypal, third-person-perspective take on the song’s subjects. Both are welcome expansions on The World as we had known it.

By Tobias Carroll

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