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Crafting a Masterpiece: Tracing the Evolution of Big Thief

on October 10, 2019, 1:42pm

Adrianne Lenker wrote her first song at eight years old and recorded her first solo album at just 13. Like most child prodigies, this opened her up to a slew of issues, including her father seeing her talent as a moneymaking opportunity and becoming her manager. “I was on this train towards becoming a child pop star,” she said in an interview with Pitchfork in 2017. But after matters with her father became difficult, she cut ties with him to pursue music on her own.

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After completing a program at Boston’s prestigious Berklee College of Music, Lenker moved to Brooklyn and met guitarist Buck Meek, who would later become a fellow bandmate and her biggest collaborator. They formed a group called Buck and Anne, and after recording two albums under this moniker, the duo met bassist Max Oleartchik. This collaboration became the indie-rock quartet Big Thief. They recorded and then released their debut album, Masterpiece, in 2016.

Folk-rock is a genre that can feel oversaturated. Mumford & Sons popularized the genre in terms of its mainstream success, but other artists have taken that grander sound and imbued it with a greater sense of intimacy. Big Thief established precisely that on Masterpiece, which is evident from the first strums of the acoustic guitar on opener “Little Arrow”. Lenker almost whispers the words as if you’re the only person meant to hear them, like she’s confiding a personal secret in you. But the booming drums and electric guitars on the titular track immediately break that quietude. It shows that Big Thief are a group that don’t write just one type of song, but rather embrace a multitude of approaches.

Naming a debut album Masterpiece is a bold move, especially for an artist that flirts with a style that so many artists before them have tampered with. But such a title demonstrates Big Thief’s fearless ambition. Although Masterpiece isn’t particularly innovative regarding experimentation, it’s still cutting-edge from a songwriting perspective. Lenker covers a gamut of topics like love, trauma, and domestic abuse. Each of the record’s 12 tracks is written in a major key, yet the joyous instrumentation is contrasted with the bleak subject matter of her lyrics. “Real love makes your lungs black/ Real love is a heart attack,” she sings on “Real Love”. The narrator watches her mother conceal scars and bruises from her partner with makeup, acknowledging that the only love she’s ever known is abusive and toxic.

Unlike the quartet’s later work, their debut takes a grounded approach with its songwriting and composition. There’s plenty of syncopation between Jason Burger’s drumming, Meek’s guitar work, and Oleartchik’s basslines. There are even two acoustic guitar-led tracks, “Little Arrow” and “Lorraine”, the only sounds ringing from them being a hushed guitar and Lenker’s mesmerizing vocals. Masterpiece sees Big Thief at their most direct, with lyrics and instrumentation that’s accessible and tangible.

Just one year later, the folksy Brooklynites released 2017’s Capacity. The record’s title juxtaposes that of its predecessor, implying that there is a limit to what artists can accomplish with their music. Despite the implications in the epithet, Capacity is an improvement on Masterpiece on nearly all fronts. It takes many of the same routes that their debut does, but it works toward perfecting them. For instance, Lenker’s lyrics are still tinged with sorrow, and the music is still immediate and concrete.

On the second track, “Shark Smile”, Lenker describes losing a friend to a car crash in disturbing detail: “Evelyn’s kiss was oxygen/ I leaned over to take it in/ As we went howling through the edge of south Des Moines/ It came over me at a bad time.” During the mid-tempo stroll of “Watering”, she recounts a narrative of a horrifying stalker: “He cut off my oxygen/ And my eyes were watering/ As he tore into my skin like a lion.” And of course, there’s the centerpiece of Capacity, “Mythological Beauty”, which speaks of a love for Lenker’s mother and Lenker’s own near-childhood death from a falling railroad spike. It’s told over an entrancing finger-picked guitar and a haunting, barely audible synth pad.

Perhaps the greatest change from Masterpiece is the recruitment of a new drummer, James Krivchenia, an engineer on their debut record. Krivchenia’s drumming is not as locked-in as Burger’s is, but instead, it’s reminiscent of the ticking of a clock, providing a temporal backbone to Lenker’s melodic tapestry. His drum patterns are simple, but they serve a great purpose in accomplishing Big Thief’s penchant for rumination. On “Objects”, he steadies the group’s pace and seldom abandons his hi-hat, snare, and kick.

The quartet took a break in 2018, only to return with their best album yet, U.F.O.F., earlier this spring. Capacity is certainly different from Masterpiece, but they still share plenty of commonalities. U.F.O.F., though, is a complete departure from the grounded approach of Big Thief’s first two endeavors. Lenker’s lyrics are more impressionistic and recall the poetry of Emily Dickinson and Dylan Thomas. The entire musical basis of the band’s third album is dreamlike and imaginary. Where the music drives forward on their previous LPs, it instead floats like particles on this record.

Similar to Masterpiece and Capacity suggesting the album’s musical direction through their titles, U.F.O.F. follows this pattern. Adding the word “friend” to the abbreviated form of “unidentified flying object,” the band implies the exploration of different, uncharted territory and becoming close with someone currently unknown. “Just like a bad dream, you’ll disappear/ Another map turns blue, mirror on mirror,” Lenker murmurs over a gorgeous mix of finger-picked guitars and gentle drums.

Where Lenker was disturbingly dark on the quartet’s first two records, she takes expectedly dreary subject material and crafts it into something majestic and graceful. “Terminal Paradise” paints a portrait of death, but as something unnecessarily feared, hence the track’s title. “Terminal/ We both know/ Let the rest of me go/ See my death become a trail/ And the trail leads to a flower,” she sings in the chorus, interspersing her words to let the misty composition underneath breathe.

Speaking of “Terminal Paradise”, it’s one of two tracks on U.F.O.F. that has been reinvented from Lenker’s 2018 solo album, abysskiss, the other one being “From”. These two stellar songs have been thickened with a rhythm section and more layering, benefiting them both. Aside from the development of Lenker’s solo material, Buck Meek experimented with guitar tones and feedback for this record. In an interview with The Ringer published earlier this year, Meek discusses how he was inspired by Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo to hang his guitar from barn rafters 30 feet in the air with a rope, then surround himself and his guitar with a circle of amplifiers. He would then be “punching it around, kicking it, strumming it, and getting all this feedback in the circle.” This resulted in the jarring distortion heard in the standout “Jenni”.

Almost as if to make up for not releasing an album in 2018, Big Thief recently announced the follow-up to U.F.O.F., titled Two Hands. They’ve described Two Hands as “the earth twin” and its predecessor being “the celestial twin.” Given the two singles they’ve released from the upcoming record thus far, “Not” and “Forgotten Eyes”, Big Thief are surely welcoming an earthier tone compared to the haziness of U.F.O.F. Although it’s uncertain to what degree the Brooklyn quartet will reshape their sound on Two Hands, one thing is clear: Big Thief continues to be one of the most interesting and culturally impactful bands in indie rock right now.

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