Steve Tibbetts, “Life Of” (ECM)

Like a cicada with an eight-year itch, this worldly-wise St. Paul musical wiz seems to be on a slow but steady cycle as he finally delivers a follow-up to 2010’s “Natural Causes” and 2002’s “A Man About a Horse.”

A lot of life has happened to Tibbetts in all those years — children growing up and moving on; loved ones struggling with illness; a parent’s death — and “Life Of” catches him in a reflective mood. Opening cut “Bloodwork” sets a somber tone, leading into a cycle of 10 songs titled for family and friends (“Life of Lowell,” “Life of Joan,” etc.) before the closing cuts “End Again” and “Start Again” suggest life goes on.

All that aside, this is one seriously beautiful record — intimate in scale yet spacious enough to fill a big room. (In fact, Tibbetts took over Macalester College’s new Mairs Concert Hall for a night to do the final mix.) At its heart is an internal dialogue between Tibbetts’ resonant Martin 12-string guitar (which his father gave him 40 years ago) and the piano he’s taken up more recently. Bending strings and striking gong-like notes, he evokes the Indian musicians and Balinese gamelan that have long been an inspiration. Subtle sonic effects, along with a bit of hand percussion (by longtime accomplice Marc Anderson) and cello (by Michelle Kinney), add dimension but never distraction.

In the end, this feels like a packet of love letters, delivered in whispers.

TIM CAMPBELL, Star Tribune