For the avid music consumer, December is a time of reflection, revisit, and meticulous listing. The third of these is the trickiest beast, what with there being too many factors to consider and too few hours in the short winter days to be able to give the exercise.
Continuing in vain… a band inextricable from this year’s “Best of” debate are Brooklynites Big Thief. Led by inimitable frontwoman Adrianne Lenker, the quartet were responsible for two of the year’s highlights: May’s U.F.O.F. and October’s Two Hands. The pair are the results of separate recording sessions in Washington’s Bear Creek Studios and Texas’ Sonic Ranch last summer. During the writing process, the band quickly realised they had two albums’ worth of material – in an interview with Stereogum, Lenker elucidated how they “didn’t just want to make a double album, because we felt it was too dense, especially for these particular songs. We just wanted each to have its own focus, and so pretty early on, we knew that we were going to make two records, and we knew that we wanted them to be very contrasting.”
The stunt, if it’s not too reductive to call this one, is becoming increasingly rare unless you’re King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard. Ariana Grande managed it within twelve months but not over the same calendar year; Foals cut Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost in half, releasing parts one and two this March and October, respectively; Norwegian pop singer Aurora did something similar spread over 2018 and 2019. And of course, The Beatles put out Help! and Rubber Soul in one year and Sgt. Pepper’s and Magical Mystery Tour in another; Dylan gave us both Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited in 1965; and Bowie Low and Heroes in ‘77. The trend has been historically popular, but if we isolate today then it’s not so common.
So the fact of boasting two releases of 40+ minutes and 10+ tracks is impressive in itself. When they’re both this good, those responsible are clearly worth our attention. The same Stereogum piece described Two Hands as the “body” to U.F.O.F.’s “spirit”, and there is indeed an (inescapable) sense of space and the ethereal to the latter. It’s present from opener ‘Contact.’ Lenker and co. do feel beamed in from another planet; it can only be appropriate for this piece to begin by establishing a point of contact. The track is driven by a slow build of acoustic plucks before the introduction of an altogether wilder electric guitar at 2:55. The ferocity seems to have paved the way for Two Hands lead single ‘Not’, a six-minute landmine reminiscent of the title track from Masterpiece (2016).
Following ‘Contact’ is the album in question’s title track. It’s glorious – delicate but slippery, beautiful but mystical. There’s a case for comparing the whole album to Radiohead’s In Rainbows, but it’s this track that gives the analogy most conviction. The album’s standout ‘Cattails’ comes next. It’s so fragile it could break, yet vulnerable by design. There’s clarity as it glides through verses and choruses, permitting their continuous bleed into one another. “But you don’t need to know why when you cry / You don’t need to know why / You don’t need to know why when you cry”, Lenker laments. The thing’s unfiltered, devastating, unforgettable.
Both sonically and lyrically, the album’s tone rarely wavers or becomes inflammatory. With a similar precarity, ‘From’ bewails the constant inability to externalise pain: “No one can be my man, be my man […] No one can be my woman, be my woman.” Community can’t even provide a solution, the ghostly backing vocals retreating almost as soon as introduced (for the second iteration of the above refrain).
The album’s at its most fun on ‘Orange’, a gleefully raw, stripped folk cut. If you’re new to Lenker’s singing, or it still needs your unqualified validation at this point, then the track defies any dispute over whether she’s in her own league. There’s further evidence plastered all over her solo material.
‘Century’, meanwhile, echoes Nick Drake and is built with a similar kind of purist allure. ‘Betsy’ supplies the evidence that Lenker’s vocals are as versatile as they are good. Sounding like a different singer, the new register is more akin to Matt Berninger’s baritone than how she’s sounded for the past 2.5 Big Thief albums. Penultimate track ‘Jenni’ is equally responsible for new territory. Somewhat departing from the alt-rock and folk thus far, it resembles something closer to noise rock – think a darker ‘Darklands’, or a ‘Just Like Honey’ with more gravity.
It’s intense and visceral, but any debris is cleared with album closer ‘Magic Dealer.’ Such palette cleansing is vital, ensuring that the piece goes full circle, returning to the otherworldly, inquisitive state it begun in. “I am the photograph in you / The photograph in you / Still as the moment we’re lying in right now” Lenker concludes, departing as the track devolves into seventy seconds of whirring instrumentals, fading as the spaceship disappears back into the sky it came from. For a return to earth and the “body”, turn the page and experience Two Hands: the antithetically crowded, no less broken twin sister.
Big Thief have exploded onto the scene, stealing 2019 in the process. They’re carving out their own niche within a genre that is hardly short on contemporaries. Yet it’s precisely their singularity that promises longevity – they’re leaner than The National or Bon Iver, meaner than Arcade Fire or Broken Social Scene, more urgent than Vampire Weekend. Such comparative exercises are a testament to how truly astonishing Big Thief are. Like many, all year I’ve been kicking myself for not discovering them sooner.