Big Thief’s new double album, “Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You”, was not designed for casual engagement. Lasting 81 minutes, it requires serious listening. The band’s sounds become more laid-back, as queer vocalist/guitarist Adrianne Lenker’s vision explores complex emotions with underlying joy. On “Change”, she anticipates “death, like a doorway to a place we’ve never been before”. His musings on mortality set the stage for an album on which the band itself undergoes a metamorphosis.
Since their 2016 debut “Masterpiece,” Big Thief has maintained a steady stream of music, including solo albums from guitarist Buck Meek and Adrianne Lenker. In fact, Lenker is such a prolific songwriter that she’s single-handedly released three albums since forming Big Thief. Her history as a musician dates back 15 years – her first solo album was a failed attempt to turn her into a teenage pop star. In 2019, Big Thief released two albums, six months apart. “UFOF” settled on a spatial, mostly acoustic sound, while “Two Hands” rocked. (“Not,” complete with a fiery, extended guitar solo from Lenker, might be the band’s peak moment.) Their new double album “Dragon Warm Mountain I Believe in You” was preceded by eight singles, from last August.
Big Thief’s music has always been tied to folk music and a 60s/70s singer-songwriter tradition, but starting with “UFOF” the band began to chafe at its potential restraints. . “Two Hands” was recorded almost entirely live in the studio, with Lenker’s vocals also recorded in one take. The band left in performances where their voice sounds shaky as long as the song works. “Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You” tries new sounds for the band. “Time Escaping” uses detuned and prepared strings to transform the guitar into a percussion instrument. “Spud Infinity” heads for Appalachia, with jew’s harp and violin. The band’s influences extend beyond Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and Bob Dylan, deep into American roots music.
Lenker studied music theory at the Berkelee School of Music. His guitar solos and use of alternate tunings and guitar solos show the benefits of this upbringing. But Big Thief’s music can be rough and raspy in a studied and deliberate way, suggesting the Neil Young of “Time Fades Away” and “Tonight’s the Night.”
This album lacks the studied eclecticism of the Beatles’ “white album” or the “Sandinista!” of the Clash. Most of his songs fit comfortably within the same genre. But it keeps changing tone. One can imagine Big Thief performing these songs on acoustic guitars in a cabin nestled in a forest. (In fact, it was the setting for Lenker recording his solo “songs” and “instruments” albums.) But their ambition defies their laid-back sound. Along with other plays, these are also polished studio productions. For the first time, the band worked with an outside musician, Mat Davidson, who contributes accordion, piano, recorder and violin. (Lenker’s brother Noah also sings backing vocals and plays jew’s harp on “Spud Infinity.”) This is evident in the electronic feel of “Blurred Views,” where the blurry guitar blends into the synthesizer and the drums mimic complex and programmed percussions. “Wake Me Up to Drive” uses a drum machine. But even the mostly unplugged “Sparrow” fleshes out the song with electronic clouds.
“Simulation Swarm” is the catchiest and most immediately striking song on this album – it will likely take off on adult alternative radio. “Spud Infinity” questions the life cycle of the potato. It could have been an easy allegorical trick or a novelty trick, especially with the backcountry sound of the arrangement, but “What’s it going to take to free their celestial body?” and Lenker’s more mystical musings in the second verse sound entirely heartfelt.
Although Lenker grew up in Minnesota, she sings with a noticeable drawl. His lyrics elicit poetic vanities from everyday events. “Mythological Beauty” described her childhood from her mother’s second-person perspective. The brutality, even the vulgarity, of “Seventeen, you took his sperm/And you gave birth to your first life”, referring to a brother his mother gave up for adoption when she was a teenager, was striking. But the song does something very rare, exploring the ways in which becoming a parent robbed Lenker’s own mother of some of her youth. She returns here to this subject by dedicating the final verse of “Simulation Swarm” to her brother. Before Lenker opened up about his sexuality in interviews, Big Thief Music was candid about his attraction to both men and women. She wrote love songs for both genders and used pronouns ambiguously, even in the same song. On “Not”, she sings “Nor the boy I see/With his long hair”. “12000 Lines” is a love song dedicated to a woman.
“Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You” both expands on the vision Big Thief has already delivered and ventures into new ground. But it all feels like a natural development for the band. On this album, they face the future with acoustic guitars in hand, suggesting that surviving the “simulation swarm” requires careful attention to the past.
BIG THIEF | “Dragon New Warm Mountain, I Believe in You” | 4AD Records | February 11thand