Perhaps the most heroic feat of this album is that it’s the second universally acclaimed album from Big Thief this year. That might not have been much of a feat in the 60s, when Dylan, Stones and the Beatles released several outstanding albums a year, but in this day and age it’s exceptionally unusual. As a matter of fact, recording on it started only a few days after the completion of the universally beloved U.F.O.F. Two Hands has been described by the band as the “earthy” twin sister to that “celestial” album.
That pretty much nails why I like Two Hands better. Spaced-out and dreamy, U.F.O.F. chanced not infrequently upon real beauty. Taking a detached view of the band’s tight musical interplay on that album, it can perhaps accurately be described as “better”. But the slightly looser, more rambling, and electrified vision of Two Hands appeals to my inner rock & roll fan, rooted as it is in the more earthy foundations of that genre. U.F.O.F.impressed me; Two Hands moves me.
Recorded in a desert studio near El Paso, it’s easy to imagine the arid heat’s effect on this album’s songs. Tension is palpable: it’s there in the strange guitar squalls of the title track, in the violent imagery of “The Wolf”, and in the rawest vocals of Adrianne Lenker’s career on “Not”. It’s there in the way the album is sequenced, from a soft and eerie lullaby at the very beginning, through some gentle folk that builds up to the more unhinged rock centrepieces of tracks 6 and 7, and then folding back towards a deceptive quietude for the rest of the album. The entire piece of music, as a 40-minute whole, is an exercise in built tension and release that contrasts fascinatingly with the soft miniaturist structures of the songs that comprised U.F.O.F. That album neverreleased its undeniably present emotions with quite the same forcefulness as “Shoulders” or “Not”.
The first 7 songs of the album form a near-flawless suite, a crescendo of accumulating pain and guitar noise that needs to be listened to in sequence to be fully appreciated. “Forgotten Eyes” may be the sprightliest thing they’ve ever done, with some instantly memorable guitar licks decorating gentle music that hangs delicately in the space between folk and rock. It successfully teases out the best of both worlds, like much of their best work. Soon after comes the simply gorgeous ditty “Two Hands”, which is so heart-tuggingly sincere and plaintively sung it could move a pack of hyenas to tears.
And all of that gentle work builds, with a crushing inevitability, to the mighty noise of “Shoulders” and “Not”. Both are long-running live staples that are well known to Big Thief fans. Yet they don’t feel crow-barred in here simply to satisfy them – as mentioned before, they provide an essential release to the heated emotions of the rest of the album, and you simply can’t imagine any version of Two Hands without them. “Shoulders” runs a deep groove and is very disturbing; the central image of someone doubled over with “The blood of the man/Who killed my mother with his hands” is personalised to an unnerving degree with the following “Is in me, is in me/In my veins”. Those lines invite Freudian analysis, but somehow that seems facile; the blood in the song runs deeper and darker than that. I don’t know exactly what Adrianne Lenker means by it, but I know that she makes me scared to ask.
And then there’s “Not”. At 6 minutes it might not be that long, but compared to Big Thief’s average song length it is. And anyway, they make it feel long, by which I mean epic, in the same way that Bob Dylan does with 6 minutes on “Like a Rolling Stone”. They make you hang onto every second so that it seems to stretch into infinity. The song itself is a mini crescendo, a synecdoche of the rest of the album’s slowly built tension. The guitar feedback mirrors Lenker’s voice, growing gradually more and more agitated, fretful and despairing. They prod each other on as the song snowballs out of control, like anxiety and depression in a dialogue with each other, driving each other quite wild with vexation at the world. In the third verse the guitar cuts out, leaving just bass and drums swirling around Lenker. But we’re not fooled: we know something bigis coming. And after one more chorus of frightening intensity as the guitar crashes back in, we finally get something big, in the form of existential release: an extraordinary 3 minute guitar solo of dissonant squalls and screeches that’s easily the most powerfully affecting thing Big Thief have ever done. It comes at the end of a list of everything that it’s “not”: “Not the planet”, “Not the meat of your thigh”, “Not a ruse” etc. Lenker’s agitated, eventually distraught vocals keep us asking two questions: A) If this is all that it’s not, then what isit? B) And anyway, what is the it you’re searching for? The guitar solo is so overwhelming you feel that it could provide the answer to both.
It’s a great moment. But now that I’ve got my unqualified rave out of the way, let’s get onto the album’s flaws. Because there are some. After the spectacular “Not” peaks their career to date, it’s dramatically downhill to the following 3 songs, which conclude the album on somewhat of a bum note. “Wolf” has some interesting imagery, but its stark acoustic setting isn’t intriguing enough to reward repeated plays. And then “Replaced” and “Cut My Hair” meander uneventfully to the finish line, unremarkable songs with none of the drama or tension of the preceding ones.
More of a consistent flaw throughout are the lyrics. As a writer Adrianne Lenker tends towards the oblique and the frustratingly indirect, so that whole songs can pass you by without catching the drift of what they’re about. Sometimes that can have an unnerving effect in a good way, as on “Shoulders”. But generally it doesn’t; it just makes you frustrated that Lenker didn’t try harder to make herself understood. Checking out the words written down on Genius doesn’t help all that much either, because with the exception of “Not”, none of them command the attention when read along to with the music. Phrases and choruses and verses waft through your eyes and brain without leaving an impression, without triggering any thoughts or emotions, with a few small exceptions (the recurring “toy in hand” image of “The Toy” is definitely poignant).
So there’s two big reasons not to revere the album as much as many critics already have. Once Lenker can work out a way to ideally combine the two hands of music and lyrics, so that they can clasp onto and complement each other in a moving union, I have no doubt that she and her band have it in them to produce a masterpiece. But as it is, this year we’ll have to settle for the beautiful but flawed U.F.O.F. and the even more beautiful yet still flawed Two Hands.