Big Thief are the kind of band who inspire grandiose natural-world metaphors in reviews of their music. Let me add one more to the pantheon: listening to their latest, a loosely structured yet tightly wound double album, reminded me of nothing less than a flock of birds flying in a slipstream. The band play with such unity of purpose, in such perfect formation, on track after track, that it seems as if they move as one – purely by instinct, like said flock of birds. It becomes hard to single out one instrument or voice, most of the time, so perfectly intertwined are they (except for on songs like “Promise is a Pendulum” and “The Only Place”, which are essentially Adrianne Lenker solo tracks), just as you wouldn’t be able to pick out the features of a single bird from amongst a flock.
All of this won’t be much of a surprise to previous fans of Big Thief. Their number multiplied considerably with 2019’s double whammy of U.F.O.F. and Two Hands, two miracles of compression and expert musicianship that quickly shot them into the upper echelons of indie band acclaim. But it was still far from a given that they would be able to maintain such consistency of craft and tightness of musical interplay across the length of a double album.
That they largely pulled it off is the first real musical thrill of 2022. Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You (that hard-to-remember title may be the most off-putting thing about it) has the length of a White Album or Blonde on Blonde, but less of the mania and sprawl, i.e. nothing as “out there” as “Revolution” or “Rainy Day Women #12&35”. It aligns more closely with the Stones’ Exile on Main St., in that none of its songs are a complete mess, but also in that it hones in on American roots music as a way to unify its music. As a result, Big Thief have succeeded in releasing something that may be 80 minutes long, but is strong all down the line.
We already knew they reigned supreme in folk and rock, the main focuses of U.F.O.F. and Two Hands respectively. But one of the biggest and warmest surprises here is that they’ve added country music to their already considerable arsenal of Americana genres to draw upon. The fiddle is used to make their love of country corn shine as clear as the moon in June on “Red Moon”, as well as on a curious ditty called “Spud Infinity”, which also deploys Lenker’s brother on the jaw harp. That latter song in particular has drawn a few raised eyebrows, with Andy Cush in his ace Pitchfork review comparing it to The Beatles’ White Album low point “Piggies” in that it will make some wonder how on earth anyone could ride so hard for it.
Allow me to ride hard for it. “Spud Infinity” is a delight: both musically and lyrically richer than “Piggies”. Whilst on the first couple of listens lines like “Kiss your body up and down, other than your elbows/‘Cause as for your elbows they’re on their own/Wandering like a rolling stone/Rubbing up against the edges of experience” might make you giggle (if generous) or else snicker, on the third or fourth listen its poignancy will suddenly hit you. It might make you see your body and the world in a new way; it really is true, after all, that your elbows are on their own most of the time. They really don’t get that much human contact. The whole song is like that, honing in on things that you’d never thought about or really noticed before, and making you think about them in new ways. Isn’t a potato knish amazing, Lenker asks us, as much a part of the earth as you or me or the ants that roam it? Aren’t we all one celestial body? Maybe the words to “Spud Infinity” mean something, maybe they don’t. But you’ll remember them. That’s thanks to their idiosyncrasy, but also thanks to the song’s melody that highlights them, and the lilting fiddle and plunking jaw harp that sweeten them.
“Spud Infinity” is part of an opening “existential” trilogy, with “Change” and “Time Escaping”, that is both allusive and direct. These songs contain strange lines such as the above quoted in “Spud Infinity”, and also for example “Silent river pouring backward eternally/Through the phase and touch of entropy”. But the meanings of these song are easier to grasp than most from Big Thief’s past. With little effort you can deduce that they’re about the biggest of “big” themes: facing up to death and the passing of time. Lenker squares up to those seeming horrors with a calm that matches her voice, a calm that’s in a similar vein to George Harrison’s in All Things Must Pass. Her shrug of acceptance is as powerful as any howl of despair at life’s cruelties, and decidedly more useful: “Would you live forever, never die/While everything around passes?” We’ve all felt a keener awareness of our own mortality in the last 2 years, so those lines kick like a bucking horse, yet may well also act as a balm to existentially frightened souls.
And just when things are seeming a little too heavy and pretentious, Lenker displays a winning knack on this album of lightening things up again with a joke or an unexpected reference to an old song. So in “Change”, after musing about death for a few minutes, Lenker suddenly leaps from the deathly definition of “still” to “Still what I find/Is you are always on my mind”. And this bouncing between seriousness and levity can work the other way as well, as on the last track, another countrified effort (and winner) called “Blue Lightning”. First she flashes lines that lighten like lightning, such as “I wanna be the shoelace that you tie” and “I wanna be the vape that gets you high”, before suddenly returning to mortality, quick as a flash, with the kicker “I wanna live forever till I die”.
These leaps and bounds and oscillations in moods are high-level songwriting indeed: they make tragic and comic observations seem as natural a fit as the ingredients for a potato knish. But all of the strongest examples of this on the album come at the beginning and end, on the first three and last two tracks of the album. In between, Lenker wanders around with less quickness and high-level inspiration on display. “Sparrow” is a rather complacent retelling of the Adam and Eve myth that doesn’t successfully challenge its sexist blaming of women for mankind’s downfall. “Wake Me Up to Drive” sounds as sleepy as its subject. “Promise is a Pendulum” doesn’t get where it’s going fast enough.
Another flaw in the album’s epic design is that Lenker’s singing isn’t quite up to it. Winningly low-key and tremulous on the band’s shorter releases, over 80 minutes her already thin voice’s lack of variety seems to stretch it even thinner. It’s something of a relief then that guitarist Buck Meek joins her on backing vocals on occasion, especially on the co-write “Certainty”. It would’ve perhaps improved the album to have him duet or even sing solo on a few more of the tracks.
These are of course quibbles; but they’re enough over the course of 80 minutes to dip the album perceptibly away from all-time classic status. Still, the band are absolutely always on fine form, and rescue some of the spacier moments from tedium. It’s not hard to discern that having their drummer, James Krivchenia, produce this time around was a super move that audibly brought the band even closer together as a unit.
And they’re so damn tight, all of the time. We might just start to worry that if they get any tighter, they’ll implode on us like a dying star. After all, all bands, like people, must one day die. But Big Thief will keep on living forever until they do, and we’ll keep on living forever in their sound.