In 2016 Big Thief’s debut Masterpiece crashed onto the music scene with Adrianne Lenker’s heartfelt songwriting and a phalanx of electric guitars. They sounded raw but familiar, with the ornate vocals of Angel Olsen and the attitude of Wolf Alice. But, really, they were their own. For their follow up the band have made what feels like a natural progression from their first record. Capacity, which was written soon after recording the first, follows some of the last’s themes: love, violence, family. However, there’s a quietness and a polish about it that perhaps reflects the experience they’ve gained and their own confidence as an outfit.
It’s, again, a very personal album. The front cover is a picture of lead-singer Adrianne Lenker’s cousin at fourteen years of age. In an interview with Stereogum, Lenker spoke of her interest in exploring and excavating her own past. This focus on personal relationships is brave and kind of unusual. While the band have a grungy, almost 90s sound, Lenker’s fragile voice and personal lyrics make it something quite different. Slacker rock, with care? And in that way, this album has something refreshing about it: honesty. It’s not an easy thing to do – to dig into the past and to put it so well into words and music.
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This feels like a more contemplative record than Big Thief’s first. There are quieter, delicate acoustics songs, as well as guitar hooks and drum beats which are repetitive, meditative even, and hook you into the stories. It’s also an album of well written stories. In “Mythological Beauty” Lenker describes an accident in which she hurt herself as a kid and was rushed to hospital by her mother, her head gushing with blood. Small details of the house transport you to this time and place (“shrapnel and oilcans, rhubarb in the yard”). “Mary” is a poetic tribute to a close friend that Lenker met in college. It’s a piano ballad that mixes the simplicity of a nursery rhyme with a sense of loss and even violence that growing up and separation can bring. The lyrics, rhymed and whispered, are almost like French romantic poetry.
This melodrama and tendency towards violence is a theme on Capacity. There are car crashes; aggressive lovers; images of vampires and werewolves; things that bare their teeth. Shark Smile (Important question: do sharks even smile?) tells a story of a car crash and two friends (or lovers). This tune is a highlight, an understated anthem with the charm of a Bruce Springsteen ballad, a driving drum beat and chorus so brief if you blink you miss it. Throughout the album there are big themes being grappled with, often with ambiguity. Love can be a capacity. But it can also be ensnaring.
Capacity is an apt title. It alludes not just to an inner strength, of being capable of love and empathy, but also the musical space on the album. Lenker, still, clearly has a need to write about where it hurts. But this is a confident progression from album one; full of rawness, moments of beauty, and lots of songs and lyrics you’ll want to go back to.
‘Capacity’ is out now. The full track-listing for the album is as follows…
01. Pretty Things
02. Shark Smile
06. Great White Shark
07. Mythological Beauty
11. Black Diamonds