Big Thief have been hard at work. Adrianne Lenker and co. have released three albums in three years since their 2016 debut Masterpiece, including the stunning UFOF earlier this year, without sacrificing quality along the way. This companion-piece record apparently burst into life just days after the release of the aforementioned, something you rarely see these days; press cycles and unyielding tour schedules usually dominate the rest of your calendar year to ensure sales figures and blah blah blah that’s the shape of the industry, we get it.
It makes you wonder then… what stories and themes from that record needed fleshing out for the New Yorkers to so boldly deliver a sequel (the ‘earth twin’ to UFOF‘s ‘celestial’, according to the band) so soon, if any? Are they just throwing at the wall to see what sticks? Was this always the plan? I think it’s time we took a listen.
Opener ‘Rock and Sing’ is a frantic lullaby, posing questions about our bodies and relationships. It breezes by, just about scraping two minutes, in the shape of a track that wouldn’t sound too out of place on Karen O’s Crush Songs. Trust me, that’s high praise from me.
The swaying folk of ‘Forgotten Eyes’ is hypnotic. Adrianne sheds some learnt philosophy on the moments we share; the things that bind us in this madness. She’s channeling the passive voice of a Stephen Malkmus, a Tom Petty or a Bob Dylan, and at no point does it sound forced. The “Forgotten tongue is the language of love” refrain is a high-quality earworm. It’ll get you for days.
Playing around in the sandbox of memories is ‘The Toy’. The lyrics float around depicted scenes in a dream-like manner, loose, only tethered by the feelings explored. “In the sphere, that’s where we all die/In the eye, that’s where I’m living”. Next, the title track kicks off with a wailing vocal performance that would make Kate Bush jealous. A glittering number it’s easy to get lost in, maybe only until the gut punch of the chorus, that tangles with feelings of unfulfillment in the grips of love.
The smoothness of the melody at the half way point, ‘Those Girls’ is to die for. This is the first song in a long time I remember pulling back to the start immediately after my first listen. I was in love with the sweet and simple drum beat, the clean framing chords and walk-along bassline. This is a pure and rustic number… the band at their best displaying some airtight playing whilst letting the narrative inside breathe.
‘Shoulders’ is the closest thing to a radio-rock song on this album, and even then, it lives a couple of roads away. “The blood of the man who killed my mother with his hands, is in me” thinks it can sit innocuously among a grungy guitar tone and layered harmonies… and it cannot. That dives out.
‘Not’ is a six-minute assault. The frenzied delivery and repetition of vocal melody is relentless and wonderful; you are forced to drink in the words straight from the soapbox. “It’s not the hunger revealing/ Nor the ricochet in the cave/Nor the hand that is healing, nor the nameless grave”… there’s tactile panic here and the song wants you to feel every part. The guitar solo is erratic, near feral, and lends so much to the landscape built around it.
The gentle acoustic of ‘Wolf’ is a guise for pain; mourning for two lives occuring at different speeds. “How you seem to follow through, on everything you you yearn for/Steps so fair/so much certainty”. Adrianne seems to pine for a similar way of operating… she’s begging to stay in sync.
‘Replaced’ has the only out-and-out chorus of the LP that resembles any prior work by the band. A ballad of making room for mystery; of preferring to dream than getting solid answers, and perhaps the most clear example of the record’s production style of live tracking.
Closer ‘Cut My Hair’ is a stylistic aggregation of the last half hour you’ve listened to. Starting awkward and innocent, like an old country number, it eventually evolves into something more sinister, all the while more twinkly and pretty as it does. It’s a perfect summation of everything they’ve ‘gone for’ this time out, and manages not to sound like a disjointed mess.
Adrianne Lenker has an penchant for melody like very few others. I’ve seen comments online about this record ‘going hookless’ and deviating away from the more classic songwriting style, and whilst true, I can’t imagine it any different. This was absolutely the set of cuts to try that with, as the standard of storytelling is stellar, definitely high enough to elevate them beyond conventional formatting and let you take in the content as is. This is arguably the most cohesive the band has ever sounded sonically too, so whatever it is they’re playing around with is working wonders.
My favourites on this album have ended up among my favourite Big Thief tracks full stop, and as much as I’m aware that recency bias is a thing, I think this release is simply operating at a different level to anything previous… including standouts from May’s UFOF, which I thought did the most work in their catalogue thus far. It’s not just that everything on this album functions, that would be impressive in and of itself… it’s how much everything excels in such a mixed bag. I was terrified I’d have a saturation issue with this, but no, forget that… I think this is my favourite release of the year.