Big Thief‘s front-and-centre, Adrianne Lenker, has got the bug. An NPR journalist described her/their output and total career-orientated lifestyle as “like a hydrant with its top knocked off”, promoting Thief’s last outing Two Hands. Adrianne acknowledged the risk of overload briefly on that LP, singing gently on ‘Shoulders’: “You showed me how / To keep myself from burning out”.
Whatever that secret is, it’s working. Songs and Instrumentals are Lenker’s 6th and 7th albums in the last five years, and mark her second consecutive year releasing multiple projects. These twin records are exactly as succinctly described, one eleven-track songwriting record, and a two-track voyage into the sonic depths. Both run pretty much as long.
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Beginning the Songs portion of this release, ‘Two Reverse’ has some of Big Thief’s ‘Orange’ in its blood, but that’s to be expected. There’s only so much you can ask of an artist in pushing the envelope before you stop visiting them, because that thing you liked them for isn’t what they do anymore. Hearing fingers slide down the fretboard, melody mirroring the guitar notes played, and even the occasional supportive clap in the mix makes for a very raw experience. If this is the appetiser, I’m excited.
Lenker watches everything return to nothing on ‘Ingydar’. Matter, relationships, us… shrouded in the remnants, they existed but passed nonetheless.”Everything eats and is eaten, time is fed.” There’s an unmitigated violence to her words that allows her to wade as deep as she likes into the conventions of the folky singer-songwriter record without sounding like anybody else. She’s aware too, and swings it around on Songs.
If ‘Ingydar’ is impenetrable for thick walls of imagery and pondering, ‘Anything’ is anything but. It has names and faces, instances recalled in a detail so sharp it must be a recounting… a great intimacy on display; personal pronouns abound that are often unfound in Adrianne’s work. The “as is” production is never stronger than on ‘Forwards Beckon Rebound’ and the three minute run time feels like 1:30 tops. The chorus melody and assertive lyrical content I’d usually feel would warrant a more iron-fisted arrangement, but in that same unfeigned spirit of newfound self-discipline, I can take the sober route. This one’s addictive.
‘Heavy Focus’ cycles through vaguely connected ideas. I picture Adrianne mentally flicking through pictures, prescribing a few words to each as she goes. It’s incredibly cozy, but not the most congruent thing to the record. ‘Half Return’ has a certain instability to it. Hammering out something as trivial as “the lawn is dead” shouldn’t sound so off-kilter, but here we are. That violence is back. There’s also some lovely twinkling acoustic guitar in the unexpected instrumental bridge.
“Come, help me die / my daughter.” The conversational ‘Come’ is one I’d love to quote every single lyric on, as that near-guarantees you’d check it out. A hand-in-hand walk down the beach, to a chosen final resting place; our narrator doesn’t fear the end. They only wish to be held. Five minutes fly by, and you’re sat back where you pressed play, a little more grateful for what you have. Beautiful and moving.
The realisations forged in the pit of emptiness are tossed aside on ‘Zombie Girl’s chorus. Lenker bins her preconceptions to better understand the silence she often instinctually fills. The irony of this thought-process making the track, after she sings of covering the void with music is not lost. The “What’s on your mind?” refrain is directed at the self.
‘Not A Lot, Just Forever’ revisits the ‘Wolf’ from Big Thief’s track of the same name. “My dog barks wildly, to protect my infancy / From my ex-believer / And I try to calm the wolf / To remind her I am both / Still she tears at my sweater.” This animal appears to be a self-depiction of Adrianne’s better judgement, the gap unbridged between who she is and who she could be. The beast continuing to pester her, even after her insistence that she is no different than this person, points to this. Maybe it’s all her, navel gazing and lost.
“I just want a place with you, I just want a place.” ‘Dragon Eyes’ is more of a pointer to change. The first half of that lyric above is direct: she wants to settle with her love. The second half is more broad; it’s a want to stop running, a want for anywhere at all. In an interview with Pitchfork last year, she said: “It never makes sense to sign a lease, but it is something I am craving—a home”.
There’s two minutes of uncut acoustic jamming at the head of ‘My Angel’, and I’m starting to prepare for album two. It’s a good warm up. When the track gets moving, Adrianne sings the praises of her (other) guardian until she can not… the tape cuts off.
Instrumentals was birthed of an exercise between Lenker and producer Phil Weinrobe, bringing idea fragments to one another in the recording period for Songs. They’d start and finish the day with musical show-and-tell and duelling improv, and before they knew it there was another LP’s worth of sound on the table. I won’t really be able to deconstruct this second record in the same detail, because there’s objectively less to work with, but I’m keen to hear the means of exploration under the handicap.
‘Music for Indigo’ was written for former lover Indigo Sparke to fall asleep to, and I understand. That’s not a knock, the 20+ minute piece is one of the most relaxing things I’ve ever heard. Save for the few times the guitar direction goes astray a note or so early on, it’s easy to fall completely into. I imagine with time, even those instances would become familiar enough to ignore. The fingerstyle playing allows for little collages to be made of arpeggio, and that’s how the first and final “movements” are presented. The middle section is loose, and certainly lighter on playing; pinch harmonics and bells break the silence and everything’s allowed to sustain naturally.
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‘Mostly Chimes’ is sliced up differently. There’s an initial stroll on the 5th and 6th string, followed by a treblier adventure, before a complete invocation of the woods. Light and sweet birdsong, gentle wind and the titular instrument sing harmoniously in their conjuring. They make the most of their moment and show the same love and grace to Lenker as she has them. It’s a brilliant conclusion to both parts of the story, and I’d recommend listening to the double release in this order.
Songs and Instrumentals are venting tools the likes of which I haven’t seen for a while. A crucial expulsion of the innermost at what feels like the last imaginable second, Lenker doesn’t mind getting too close to the fire, so long as she may fully describe the feeling of her burns. She’s alone now, and she’s utilising the time and space to heal her ails. Even if that means procedure is her responsibility.