Adrianne Lenker appears to have been predestined to become one of indie rock’s most naturalistic songwriters, bearing her soul on the track in a manner that genuinely feels as though it is devoid of effort or pretense. She can’t help but give the audience an opened-veined view into the ways in which she processes love and loss, desire and despair.
It didn’t seem possible for Lenker to match the raw intimacy of last year’s Masterpiece, yet the follow-up seems to have exceeded the refined benchmark set by its predecessor. The deeply vulnerable Capacity plays like it was excavated directly from the pages of a diary, providing Big Thief with the perfect platform upon which to display their newfound degree of haunting emotional maturity.
Although they are once again met with a jagged tilt through the influence of the 90s alt rock scene, the record flaunts its direct roots to folk rock ‒ and not the kind where oohs and aahs seem to have been perfectly tailored for the background of a car commercial. The opening track, “Pretty Things,” carries the same exhaustive finger-picking and soft-spoken anguish found on an early Leonard Cohen number.
As the record continues, several of the songs would feel at home on a country station if they were given a slightly altered inflection. The verses of “Mary,” the album’s well-earned climax, feel like a Gram Parsons song with its tempo sliced in half: “Will you love me like you loved me in the January rain?”
Melodically, though certainly not lyrically, this is a somewhat gentler turn for the band. Capacity doesn’t spend nearly as much time as its predecessor crafting catchy melodies (although “Shark Smile” is the undisputed song of the summer thus far, regardless of its dark subject matter, and the album’s title track flirts with the big guitar sound Lenker and Buck Meek garnered on the band’s debut).
There are undeniably powerful songs here, but none of them aim for the in-your-face energy of a track like “Real Love” or “Masterpiece.” Instead, this record dips into lullaby territory as it challenges its audience to look inward. Capacity is too dense to serve as an easily accessible introduction to the Big Thief; listeners need the context of the band’s previous work before diving in.
Adrianne Lenker continues to blur the line between poem and song. Not only are the lyrics peppered with flowery, figurative language, but they are also presented in an unconventional structure and set to off-kilter melodies.
As a songwriter, Lenker repeats phrases with slight variations and plays with our expectations of language, finding the intellectual currency of puns, such as in “Mary”: “The marching band / When April ran / May June bugs fly.” Judee Sill would be impressed by Lenker’s seemingly effortless affinity for turning a phrase.
Much like the album that came before it, Capacity is a spiritedly reflective record, as is made apparent even before listening by the nostalgic photos that serve as album covers. Lenker’s darkly emotive voice lends itself to storytelling, and she walks her audience through personal experiences of tragedy.
We see her search for an explanation of her own origins and recount a nearly fatal incident from her childhood in “Mythological Beauty,” one of the most accomplished tracks on the record in which the speaker switching perspectives in order to create a complete character study that retains the emotional vantage point of a first-person narrative while trimming back on the threat of tainted bias. Confessionals rarely take such a literal stance; it feels like we are spying on a family at their most vulnerable.
Throughout the album, we are shown the world through the eyes of a decidedly female speaker. Just as we’ve previously explored the marrying of violence and intimacy in songs like “Real Love” and “Lorraine,” sexual encounters are framed in horrifying terms in “Pretty Things” and “Watering”: “He cut off my oxygen / And my eyes were watering / As he tore into my skin / Like a lion.” However, Lenker uses “Pretty Things” to form a firm association between feminine energy and fortitude (“There’s a woman inside of me / There’s one inside of you, too”), as opposed to men who are “baptized in their anger.”
Capacity is the sort of masterful, dreamlike record that normally requires years of contemplative hiatus in order to flesh out, and yet we have been treated to it almost exactly one year after Big Thief’s spectacular debut. Sonically, the sounds mesh together to serve a grand vision that most likely won’t even become recognizable until after multiple active listens. Even in the more upbeat moments of the record, there is the ever-present glaring pain that comes with loss, as we learn from our scars and use their memories to paint a complete portrait of ourselves.
Music fans of varying ilks are destined to spend years dissecting these tracks and piecing together the events which they are so delicately chronicling. Big Thief has once again reminded us that they are to be included among their most esteemed peers.