St. Even | St. Even | PDX-004 (January 7th, 2014)
A century from now, when the thoroughly unsubtle great-great-grandchildren of the first social networking generation crunch the numbers at lightning speed, it will appear as though ours was a generation that didn't care much for songwriting. We liked hooks, they might surmise. We liked thirty-second-clips and fresh young faces. We liked to rank our favorites—usually in direct relation to their sex appeal or willingness to publicly disrobe. But songcraft was usually an afterthought.
They'll be right. In purely Darwinian terms, songwriting ability is just not an evolutionary trait that has won out. At best, it is regarded as a difficult eccentricity to dull with glossy production. More often, it is viewed as an outright disfigurement. Those poor souls with the mutation are driven underground, and whatever fans they accrue are usually defensive and loyal to a fault—as we would rather shield our favorite artists from the harsh realities of the marketplace than test them by it. We know what the world does with genius. And so we speak of the greatest ones—the subtle songwriters who deal in the profound and the absurd, and who help us grapple with the hard shit—in whispers. We only share them with people we trust, because our enthusiasm exposes us as tender and sensitive. Most of all, we never, ever, play their records at parties.
This is the world in which we find Steven Hefter. His new self-titled collection is the second full-length under the St. Even moniker, and though he has not toiled in total obscurity to this point, it's a testament to the times that his immense talent hasn't found him widespread acclaim. Hefter's most steadfast supporters include a large extended family of musicians in his native Portland, Ore., where he is known for his brilliant lyricism, his urgent voice, and his delicate arrangements for string and horn sections. Hefter, a therapist by trade who came to Portland after stints in Baltimore and Montreal, elicits comparisons to Leonard Cohen, early Randy Newman, and Bill Callahan, among others. But on St. Even, he distills his influences and his years of growth far from the spotlight into recorded form in convincing fashion. The fourteen-song album is packed with compositions that are alternately haunting, heartbreaking, and funny, but all of them reject the false promises of radio pop. Instead of swearing his undying affection, Hefter cops to the untrustworthy nature of his own emotions on the sparse "Been a Little Better." Instead of assuring us that everything will be alright, he asks his listeners to prepare for death and disaster on the punchy and staccato "Tested By Fire." Even his best attempt at reassurance, "Worth the Wading," is filled with apocalyptic imagery right up until its bittersweet end.
The truth, Hefter's songs seem to insist, is messy but worth finding. The same can be said of great songwriters.