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According to the mini-biography on his website, the singer-songwriter Tyson Motsenbocker experienced a “renegotiated relationship with God” seven years ago while on a monthlong, 600-mile walk that he undertook to deal with the death of his mother.
Now, two EPs and two full-length albums later, that renegotiated relationship and a profound sense of loss continue to mark the boundaries within which his cinematically vivid musical vignettes unfold.
“Miles,” a song from his new album, Someday I’ll Make It All Up to You (Tooth & Nail), even contains the word “negotiate.” “Sometimes,” Motsenbocker sings, “we negotiate before we know the whole cost.” The line’s not about God, but given the interconnectedness of the horizontal and the vertical that Motsenbocker takes as a natural condition of life, it’s not exactly not about God either.
As for loss, it takes different forms—sometimes nostalgia (“I Miss the Old Days Too,” “The Last Summer”), sometimes regret (“Sunday Morning,” “Fentanyl”), sometimes fear. “I don’t wanna be scared no more,” Motsenbocker sings at the end of one song, “Is it such a bad idea being brave?” at the beginning of another.
Then there’s this query from “Fire Escape”: “Do you fear what the night will bring, / or is there just a little disappointment in everything?”
“I think that [my] being afraid made it a prominent theme, ha, ha,” wrote Motsenbocker via email between shows on his current tour. “I’ve always felt that living an uncomfortable life, pressing oneself for meaning and purpose, [and] embracing friction and difficulty are some of the most important tenets to growth and satisfaction.”
Not that there’s anything “uncomfortable” about his music. From his soft, folk-pop voice to the glowing hooks and shuffling pulses that keep his lyrics from having to do the heavy lifting, it both sticks in your head and makes you glad that it does.
Motsenbocker credits his producer, Tyler Chester, with making Someday I’ll Make It All Up to You his most polished and effortless-sounding effort to date. But the background vocals of Madison Cunningham and the beats supplied by Dawes’ and Father John Misty’s drummers shouldn’t be discounted.
“In the past,” he explained, “I’ve often leaned quite heavily on lyrics to provide space, or a specific moment in the songs. On this album I wanted to lean more on the musicality to perform that function.”
Still, it’s the lyrics that illuminate the musicality. And it’s lyrics such as these from “Sunday Morning,” a song about emotion-based Christianity, in which that illumination shines most brightly: “Is God just a feeling that I use at my will, / like Elijah and his ravens, Gideon in the hills? / That promise of a new life read closer to a warning. / So I don’t blame anyone for passing what gets sold on Sunday morning.”
Condensing into four lines the dangers of reducing the gospel to a game of carrot and stick is a tall order. But Motsenbocker makes it seem easy. And therein lies his gift.