“Marching up the mountain
With our aching planning
High and smiling
Dark and violent
Full of butterflies
The violent tenderness
The sweet asylum”
— Big Thief, ‘Mary’
Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last few months (or even years), chances are you’ve come across someone swooning over Big Thief. The band, led by Adrianne Lenker, released their sophomore album, Capacity, earlier this year, and it is an utterly breathtaking. It’s music that sits at a crossroads between a whole variety of genres. Part Angel Olsen left-field folk, part honest-to-goodness country, part good ol’ indie rock, Big Thief manage to create something with grit, feeling, and above all a beguiling sense of narrative.
Opener ‘Pretty Things’ is both seductive and sad, the vocals curling around the acoustic guitar like smoke from a burning ember. It’s our first taste of Lenker’s ability to paint vivid pictures with careful and often beautiful phrases, spare lines that are loaded with tension and allusion, an intense sexuality, a sense of danger or trauma, and the crushing weight of one’s past. The track is concerned with communicating pain and violence, or else transferring it blindly, casting each person as donor and receiver, capable both of offloading their pent up emotions and swallowing them. And, despite being told through the gender-reinforcing imagery of sex, the narrator works to muddy the traditional narrative of masculine and feminine, allowing both characters to be rough and animal, vulnerable and alive. In doing so the track transcends the moment, becoming something more complex and long lasting. Indeed, the entire record could be described along similar terms, refusing to be cast as feminine delicacy or masculine intensity, instead weaving these two strands into a tightly wound double helix—the Big Thief DNA.
“Don’t take me for a fool.
There’s a woman inside of me
there’s one inside of you, too.
And she don’t always do
Like a great short story, ‘Shark Smile’ seems to be over too soon, despite the fact it’s almost four minutes long. Emerging from a tangle of guitar and scattered drums, the steady beat of the song proper arrives with an unassuming sense of confidence. The tale it tells is not a happy one, beginning with the thrill of two lovers’ escape in the night, “howling through the edge of south Des Moines”, and ending in a brutal collision with the guard rail. The kicker lies in the chorus, what initially seems like a vow of devotion, turns out to be final words and the survivor pleading to follow into the afterlife. “And she said woo, baby, take me,” Lenker sings. “And I said woo, baby, take me too.”
The track is deceptively simple, but holds a rare mix of catchiness and rich emotion that marks the second triumph of Big Thief’s sound. These are stories propelled by the energy within their flow, as though its characters and the very world they inhabit are born of language and not vice versa, scenes conjured through cadence as though through spell or incantation. The title track follows such an idea, pitching Lenker as a conduit for these flows rather than a conscious writer.
The push and pull of love is again the main theme on ‘Watering’, with aggression and tenderness tangled into one messy knot, while ‘Coma’, sounds like it’s been beamed straight from For Emma era Bon Iver, glistening with a so-far unseen gentleness. Something of this delicacy follows onto ‘Great White Shark’, though beneath the hushed vocals and skittish percussion lies a dark figure that threatens to descend into frenzy.
This is followed by the wonderfully syrupy and sad, ‘Mythological Beauty’, spinning stories of Lenker’s young mother struggling to raise her children. It’s one of those songs that captures you with its melody, that works its way into your brain and lies dormant, only revealing its texture and richness after repeated listens. For this reason it’s the perfect illustration of what Big Thief do so well, and why Capacity is one of the most striking albums of the year. Again the lyrics seem to flow through rather than from Lenker, the songwriter channelling voices beyond herself to tell the story that shapes her own. At once instance, her composure threatens to break, the desperation palpable as she recounts a scene from her childhood, as though the remnants of her mother’s now possess her own body. “You held me in the backseat with a dishrag,” Lenker sings, referencing an accident with a railroad spike she suffered as a child. “Soaking up blood with your eye / I was just five and you were twenty-seven / praying, ‘Don’t let my baby die.'”
If ‘Objects’ and ‘Haley’ are more meandering, likewise closer ‘Black Diamonds’ with it’s classic folk imagery of eyes and tears and whippoorwills, then it’s only a sign of the calm circumscribing the majestic ‘Mary’. Ringing out in a cathedral-like near silence, gentle piano acts to tether the fluid cadences of Lenker’s vocals, which unfurl like a magician’s silk scarves, a perpetual unravelling shaped by a poetic, negentropic logic. Once more, it is as though the meaning is summoned from the words themselves, something in the syllabic arrangement dragging stories and emotions into our world from somewhere else entirely. Lenker’s gift is her ability to recognise the strange, innate forces within language, surrender to them, and present them back to us with a crystal-clear clarity. “Do what you want with me,” as she sings on the title track. “Lost in your captivity. / Learning capacity.”
Capacity is out now via Saddle Creek and you can buy it from the Big Thief Bandcamp page.