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Big Thief and the role of versatility in great art

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Photo courtesy of @bigthiefmusic on Instagram.

Big Thief, a Brooklyn-based indie rock band, has been releasing music since 2016, starting with their debut album “Masterpiece.” Since then, the band has arisen to a quiet sort of fame, amassing a fanbase that has grown to love the band’s hushed, intimate, yet grandiose sound. 

Adrianne Lenker, the lead singer, has been releasing solo music since 2014, when she released her first album, “Hours Were the Birds.” While popular among their steadily growing fanbase, Big Thief is also popular among critics, with four out of their five albums having received a “Best New Music” rating from Pitchfork.

Although popular for their catchy songs and their undeniable musical ability, Big Thief is particularly special for a couple other reasons. Not only is the band’s sound constantly evolving in a compelling way, but since their debut album, they have had a knack for tackling difficult topics like trauma, abuse and grief. 

Lenker herself hasn’t had an easy life; born into a religious cult, Lenker moved throughout the midwest in a van with her parents. In spite of her difficult past, Lenker is still able to turn that sorrow and grief into something beautiful. 

Upon listening to Big Thief’s first album, “Masterpiece,” one may be enamored with the lush guitar instrumentals and Lenker’s powerful voice at the forefront of their catchy songs. It isn’t truly until their sophomore album “Captivity,” however, when the band starts to truly break new ground. 

Spanning 11 songs, “Capacity” is an honest recounting of Lenker’s childhood, where she turns pain into beauty. Perhaps the most notable instance of this is “Coma,” the fifth track on the album. 

In a near whisper, Lenker appears to be addressing her mother, or the mother of the narrator, whoever they may be. 

“You can wake up now, momma// From your protective coma,” Lenker pleads as the song builds. “When you wake up, you wake up// You won’t recognize your house… Will you recognize the iris of your body?” She asks. 

While appearing to be addressed to a mother who has dissociated to survive abuse, Lenker’s achingly beautiful lyricism shows that she isn’t afraid to address even the most painful of subjects. 

This becomes even more evident in the song “Mythological Beauty,” where Lenker addresses parts of her childhood more directly.

In what seems to be a direct address to her parents, Lenker sings in a near whisper “There is a child inside you who is trying// To raise the child in me// If you wanna leave// You just have to say it.” 

This verse, a universal observation of parenthood in a painful, unforgiving world, sets the stage for even more heartbreaking lyrics. 

Lenker’s lyrics have always been uncensored and guttural, which adds to the authenticity of the music she creates with her bandmates. 

Even when describing the birth of her older brother, Lenker uses the plainest, most raw terms: “You cut the flesh of your left thumb// Using your boyfriend’s knife// Seventeen you took his come// And you gave birth to your first life,” she sings. 

Later on in the song, she recounts a traumatic childhood memory, singing “Sister came out and put her arms around me// Blood gushing from my head// You held me in the backseat with a dishrag, soaking up blood with your eyes// I was just five and you were twenty-seven// Praying ‘don’t let my baby die.'” 

The way that Lenker in collaboration with her bandmates is able to turn this pain into such beauty is a mark of her artistry, but it doesn’t define her work as a musician. 

Switching gears from their earlier sound, in 2019, Big Thief moved into a different musical era. With the release of two new albums in the same year, “Two Hands” and “U.F.O.F,” Big Thief differentiated themselves from any artist out there. 

It is perhaps with the release of these two albums that Big Thief truly started to cement their sound, and throughout the two expansive albums, they slowly turned into one musical entity. 

Although released in the same year, the two albums weren’t nearly the same as each other. As perfect opposites, “Two Hands” is a more human, down-to-earth album, whereas “U.F.O.F” (giving credit to its name) is ethereal, having a more “out of this world” feeling to it. 

Perhaps the best example of “Two Hands” being a raw, human album, is its opening track, “Rock and Sing,” where Lenker croons human thoughts and feelings that most of us share. 

“Cry with me, cry with me,” Lenker urges the listener, as she sings about her musings on being human. “Within this body// Confuse// Confuse my home for a refuge,” she sings in her iconic hushed voice. 

This trend continues in the next song “Forgotten Eyes,” where Lenker says “Everybody needs someone and deserves protection.” Although each song is different, it’s clear that this album is where Lenker connects with being human, and unlike “Capacity,” she learns to embrace the complicated, and often painful reality of being human. 

In perhaps one of the best examples of Big Thief’s versatility, U.F.O.F is a drastic change from the former album. The change isn’t apparent only in sound, but also in the lyrics. Aside from reference to alien objects, such as UFOs, Lenker’s lyrics also take a sharp turn from Two Hands, as in this album she switches direction from relatable lyrics that tug at your heartstrings to more ambiguous lyrics that compel the listener to decipher them. 

“To my UFO friend// Goodbye, goodbye, like a seed in the wind// She’s taking up root in the sky,” she sings, demonstrating the ethereal nature of the album. . After a few years, where Lenker and her bandmate Buck Meek took some time to work on their own solo albums, Big Thief recently released their biggest project yet, “Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You.” 

Spanning 20 songs and an hour and 20 minutes, this album is the ultimate display of how Big Thief is a dynamic and constantly evolving band. With songs that span multiple genres, “Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You” is a statement against uniformity.

With more ambiguous lyrics and an atmospheric sound, Big Thief has beckoned the listener to be immersed in the listening experience. With songs like “Change,” which discuss our mortality and the transient nature of our existence to songs of yearning and love, their latest album is a testament to how Big Thief will always keep you on your toes.

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Samuel Weinmann, Executive Editor
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