I have a habit that I picked up in my temperamental early high school days that I haven’t been able to shake: instead of listening to bright music to lift me up when I’m feeling down, I match my soundtrack to my mood. Artists like Elliott Smith are reserved for special occasions—when the February rain still falls in mid-April, for example.
John Lutkevich, AKA Soft Fangs, makes music for such times. Like the music of Smith and Sparklehorse, his full-length debut, The Light, presents quiet tunes that pull the listener in close to their beautiful sadness. He recorded the album in his childhood home in Massachusetts, a location that creeps into songs about regret, haunting, and the desire to stay in bed and not get a job. A return home can be both a comforting and sinister experience, centering you while reminding you how far you’ve traveled from the ease of youth and the impossibility of returning to it.
On The Light, Lutkevich acknowledges the latter in songs laced with reflections about death. In the opener, “Dragon Soap,” with its soft, muffled verse and loud, fuzzy chorus, he sings, “You are finding out / What it’s all about / To live, to lose, to die / In the same skin you were born in.” On “Birthday,” with its beat loop and dizzy guitar effect, he repeats, “I’m old enough to die / I’m young enough to be alive,” and in a more assured voice on “The Wilderness,” he warns, “But life won’t seem so long / When you’re dead and gone.” Death hovers threateningly throughout the album; like the jewelry-box twinkle at the beginning of “Too Many Stars (not enough sky),” which gets dissonant and creepy, it transforms the stuff of youth into something ominous.
But Soft Fangs also has a strain of optimism. Rather than give into the threat of death, the album ultimately urges its opposite. In an answer to the first song, which poses, “You could end it all or try to move forward,” the last song embraces the second option. This track and the album are called “The Light,” after all, and they point out that it is possible to find some at the end of the deep, dark tunnel. “And death may seem ideal,” he sings, “Cause you won't feel nothing / Like you do right now / But when the light comes / Turn around and stare.”
Amid big, distorted choruses that swallow Lutkevich’s close, almost whispered voice and sedate, guitar-strummed verses that leave it bare and vulnerable, it’s possible to detect some lightness in his production and compositions, too. Though often quiet, the songs are dense with voices—instrumental and human—that sometimes emerge clear, bright, and upbeat. In the melodic vocal leap on “Birthday,” in the muted bell sounds on “Get a Job,” and in the synth voice that stands out against the noise of the final chorus on “The Light,” Soft Fangs adds a touch of levity to his lo-fi dirges.
Sometimes it’s necessary to return to a specific place for comfort—going back to a childhood home or losing yourself in sad music. As the weather warms up (fingers crossed) and the days get longer, let’s hope there’s less cause to do so. Even so, it’s a comfort to know that The Light is here waiting.