The Lowdown: There’s a scene late in Paul Schrader’s 2018 film First Reformed where Reverend Ernst Toller, a priest in the midst of a personal crisis played by Ethan Hawke, smokes a joint with his grieving parishioner, played by Amanda Seyfried, and together they embark on what she calls the “Magical Mystery Tour.” They smoke a joint together, levitate, and have out-of-body experiences. The camera follows them floating over the Earth, taking in all of its natural beauty in the form of mountaintops and lush forests before showing dumpsters filled with rubber tires, deforestation, and wanton environmental damage.
This scene elicits the same reaction as Two Hands, the new album from Big Thief. It’s adorned in natural beauty but interspersed with glimpses of violence and destruction. The album was recorded in the desert outside El Paso at the world’s largest studio complex, Sonic Ranch. The band regrouped immediately after the sessions that produced their last offering, the cerebral U.F.O.F, to record this follow-up. Two Hands takes songs that have been live favorites for years along with new compositions to craft a crisp, immersive, and overwhelmingly captivating album that puts all of the band’s strengths front and center.
The Good: Whereas much of U.F.O.F’s floating beauty was abstract and impressionist, Two Hands resonates deep in the soul with brilliantly crafted songs, like the hypnotic title track where vocalist, songwriter, and guitarist Adrianne Lenker along with guitarist Buck Meek weave through each other’s riffs or the slowly meandering rhythms and coziness of the warm guitar tones on“Wolf”, which sounds like it could have been an outtake from Yo La Tengo’s And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out .
The best songs on the album contain an urgency and danger, like blistering standout “Shoulders”, a dramatic and catchy track where Lenker cries out: “And the blood of the man who killed my mother with his hands is in me/ It’s in me in my veins.” It’s an impassioned cry, one that doubles as an intimate history of violence as well as an allegory for our collective culpability in climate destruction. It’s a theme she revisits in the communal but equally bracing “Forgotten Eyes”.
All these elements crash together in a thunderous tempest on album centerpiece “Not”. “It’s not the energy reeling,” Lenker states before breathlessly listing all the things that “it’s” not, “the phone on the table,” “the mess in your purse,” or “the fire lapping up the creek.” She tears through a list of internal, metaphysical, and earthly aspects in a state of chaos, repeating an image of the planet “not spinning.” All the while the band rises behind her before Lenker erupts into an earth-shaking guitar solo that the framework collapses in on. The band’s boldest, awe-inspiring statement yet finds them churning through unanswerable questions, aware that the ultimate answer might be more terrible than can be comprehended.
The entire album finds the band perfectly in sync, each musician’s intricate interplay coalescing together to create magic. The songs shimmer with pristine quality, adorned by Andrew Sarlo’s crystal-eyed production, filled with an immediacy and intimacy that feels like the band is inside the room with you as you put on your headphones. While the songs bristle with internal conflict within, the band have never sounded as assured and interconnected. The hypnotic interplay of the guitars often recalls the heights of In Rainbows, both blown-out and more grounded.
The Bad: While a couple of songs can’t quite match the all-encompassing highs of the album’s strong points, very few can be described as bad. The bluesy Americana on “Replaced” is still softly stunning, and the lilting lullaby on opener “Rock and Sing” is entrancing. “Those Girls” may be the only song that drags on the album, a stilted ballad with a fever-dream melody that still serves as a calming segue before the one-two punch of “Shoulders” and “Not”.
The Verdict: Looking at the year that Big Thief has had, especially if you count Lenker’s serene solo album, abysskiss, from last October, the band’s hot streak is unparalleled in present-day rock music. It’s reminiscent of a time when rock bands would release a string of classic albums with less than a year in between, a trend only adopted by certain hip-hop artists in today’s music landscape.
Two Hands as a whole doesn’t capture the weightless dream logic of U.F.O.F., but it doesn’t try to and stands on its own as a heavier, moodier work. To call this the Amnesiac to that album’s Kid A would be misleading, as Two Hands taps into an elemental fury, connecting the deeply personal with the universal majesty and threats that impact us all. Two Hands ends on “Cut My Hair”, which instead of being a Pavement homage stands dark, coda-filled, bared teeth, a knife at your throat, and burning diamond mines. Keeping the Radiohead references going, its menacing melancholy recalls Hail to the Thief’s closer, “A Wolf at the Door”, even with similar haunting background vocals.
Capping one of the strongest years a rock band has had in a while, this stands as a crowning achievement, the perfect record to close out a tumultuous decade and lead into one where the damage may be irreversible. Two Hands asks what responsibility each of us have going into the next era, offering no clear answers.
Essential Tracks: “Not”, “Shoulders”, and “Forgotten Eyes”