songs / instrumentals
2020 – Rock / Folk
Big Thief’s lead singer, Adrianne Lenker, releases two new albums, songs and instrumentals, both full of deep feelings, delicacy, sharp writing and a unique beauty.
Back in March 2020, at the beginning of Covid-19’s Global Pandemic and in the middle of a break-up, Adrianne Lenker, lead singer of the alternative rock band Big Thief, isolated herself in a cabin in West Massachusetts. This exile, which was motivated both by these problems and by the cancellation of the tour that Big Thief would do supporting their last two albums — 2019’s U.F.O.F. and Two Hands —, was seen by Lenker as an opportunity to put ideas in order, keeping away from the cycle of composing, recording and singing, and to deal with the problems she was going through. She did not intend to create any music, but just like with several artists throughout this year, the situation of isolation, loneliness and contorted feelings collaborated so that her creativity would fly high. As a result, Lenker releases two delicate projects, songs and instrumentals, both of which perfectly achieve their purposes.
It can be said that both songs and instrumentals were born from a privileged situation — one that only a few albums could experience. In addition to being the result of a broken heart — which already makes the lyrics reach even higher levels of sentimental lyricism — and being all worked by Lenker in isolation and in solitude, the projects seem to be part of a much larger unit than simply an intimate musical album. According to her, the cabin she stayed in earlier this year, which was in the Berkshire Mountains in Westhampton, Massachusetts, looked like the interior of a guitar, a family atmosphere. So, in a subtle way, Adrianne drags you into this environment that seems to have come out of a movie: you feel inside a cold, but cozy cabin, in the middle of a mountain, while a friend of yours plays a guitar and sings folk songs. While birds sing outside, rain drips on the roof, the wood crackle and the fireplace burns wood, Adrianne sings about love like no one else in songs and provides an even more immersive soundtrack in instrumentals.
Firstly, songs, in turn, do not seem like anything new since several other albums throughout the history of music have done what Lenker did here. An intimate Folk/Rock album recorded during an exile is not something new — take Neil Young’s Homegrown or Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska as an example — however, songs prove that this is a timeless format that still works due to the fact that no other way to record an album is as intimate and can capture as much essence as this. Lenker knows that and takes advantage of it, polishing songs like a delicate, smooth album, which does not precipitate anything and which, above all, is true to his beliefs and feelings.
The strongest point of songs is Lenker’s writing, which now, more than ever, becomes lived, faithful and unique. All of the songs here are endowed with lyrics that seem cautiously thought out but, in fact, probably, bloomed organically and naturally in Adrianne’s mind. In no time she seems to be struggling to write a line from songs, which resulted in tracks with gorgeous, intimate and almost cinematic lyrics. In “ingydar,” the second track on the album, she starts singing about a dead, naked horse in the barn that is eaten by flies. Although the track is a metaphor about sacrifices that we went through to progress with personal evolution, Lenker’s writing has explicit lines. She sings at the beginning, “Fragilely, gradually and surrounding/The horse lies naked in the shed/Evergreen anodyne decompounding/Flies draw sugar from his head.” Beside a simple guitar, she builds a sharp poetry that is complex but that at no time is hard to understand.
This lyric simplicity that reaches cinematic levels remains throughout the album, however, the moments when it reaches an even higher level is when we have the best songs on the album. In “anything,” the best song of songs, Lenker paints herself in a state of tranquility in which she finds herself so in love that she doesn’t care about anything but her lover. Beside a crystal guitar, romantic rhythm and Adrianne’s soft and so true voice, she sings precise lines endowed with reality. She spends Christmas with her sister-in-law and mother-in-law, hangs clothes on a clothesline, goes to food stores and the hospital after dog bites. However, the best is in the chorus when it isolates us and makes us forget everything but true love:
“And I don’t wanna talk about anything
I don’t wanna talk about anything
I wanna kiss, kiss your eyes again
Wanna witness your eyеs looking
I don’t wanna talk about anyone
I don’t wanna talk about anyone
I wanna sleep in your car while you’rе driving
Lay in your lap when I’m crying”
Finally, with the same skills, in “zombie girl” she describes the lowest state of this isolation, when she could be seen as a dead girl, beside birds and wind chimes — “I almost couldn’t wake because/I was frozen in bed with a zombie girl/Vacant as a closed down fair” —, and in “not a lot, just forever,” she fantasizes a better life — “Your dearest fantasy/Is to grow a baby in me/I could be a good mother/And I wanna be your wife.”
Fortunately, Lenker not only delivers songs that are well written but are also great sound pieces. The most amazing thing is that songs can do a lot with just a small set of strings and noises from the cabin. They are captivating, memorable, entertaining and enjoyable to hear. In “two reverse,” where she shows that she still likes her ex-partner, her voice flows easily through the notes of a guitar and palms in the background. In “heavy focus,” in turn, she works her voice in smaller tones, however, she still manages to build a nice, subtle and soft hook that is the perfect match. Finally, in “come” her voice reaches higher levels when she drags her vocals through the words and makes the track seem even more sentimental. Everything on this track is heavy, she sings with her grieving voice, “Come help me die, my daughter.” All of these tracks are delicate, like subtle pieces of ceramic: if you hit them without caution, or listen to them without calm, subtlety and pleasure, they will break and you will not enjoy them at the max.
On the negative side of songs we have tracks that, although not necessarily bad and still carry the same characteristics as the others, do not seem to make the most. While “forwards beckon rebound” is loaded with feelings, but seems unable to convey that in its sound, “half return” seems to miss an intensity in its chorus, in addition to at times leaving Lenker’s voice very murmured to the point where it doesn’t sound so nice. Suffering from the same problem, but now also with a weaker lyrics that seems a little distant, “dragon eyes” comes with some problems, but the biggest one is the chorus, which is quite forgettable. Fortunately, at the end of the album, even though “my angel” also has a little bit of all these problems, Lenker’s vocals seem to sound even more beautiful here, in addition to the track having this beautiful introduction composed by some drift notes of an acoustic guitar. However, she is not done yet.
Together with songs, she also released instrumentals, composed only of two instrumental songs that together form an almost 40-minute album. According to her, instrumentals had a specific, but simple and honest purpose. She said, “I’d like to think that at any time you need or want, you can put on instrumentals and have the sensation like a friend is playing guitar to you softly in the room.” She did that. In “music for indigo” — named after her ex-boyfriend Indigo Sparke, — she plays strings on top of rain noises and birds. The most amazing thing is how this guitar works: in the beginning, in the darkest moment, it sounds lower, obscure and serious, but after the storm, when the birds sing again, he seems more optimistic. In “mostly chimes,” we have a greater immersion: first we hear the same tugging on strings, but then this is replaced by wind chimes, brilliant and magical synthesizers, friendly birds and even crows. She took us out of the hut and now we’re looking at the trees.
In the end, instrumentals and songs provide an adventure like no other. The highlight here is not what she does, but how she does it. While in songs she pulls us out of our homes and takes us to a mountain, into an isolated hut, and tells us about her break-up and personal evolution, in instrumentals she sums it up only with a guitar, mundane noises and chimes. Now, the sun shines and it hurts when we look at it, the ground is wet with rain and we close the cabin door behind us. It’s time to go home, a coffee for the trip.