Think of Big Thief, and one quality comes to mind: openness. It’s not just written all over Adrienne Lenker’s image-rich lyrics, but also woven into the tightly-knit and instinctive way that the band perform and create together. If you’ve ever been lucky enough to see the band live – or even dipped a toe into their captivating rendition of ‘Not’ on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert – you’ll be familiar with the sparkling magic they have as a group. Music seems to pour out of them; what was originally rehearsed and learned now feels as effortless as a reflex. As Lenker puts it in ‘Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You’s closing song ‘Blue Lightening’, a love letter to Big Thief: “I wanna be the shoelace that you tie”
A 20-song album, recorded in four distinct locations (Upstate New York, Topanga Canyon, The Rocky Mountains and Tucson, Arizona) over the course of five months, ‘Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You’ might just be their most open-ended work to date, too. From the playful streak of ‘Spud Infinity’ – a song that rhymes “finish” with “potato knish” and ends with a raucous jaw harp solo that sounds a little like Daft Punk jamming out on a didgeridoo – to ‘Blurred View’s modulating basslines, it’s a record focused on expansion. Despite the hefty play-time, it never feels like a slog.
Recalling both Johnny Cash and Neil Young, ‘Sparrow’ and ‘Changes’ are home to some of Lenker’s finest songwriting; the latter finds her trying make sense of the marching of time, and does so beautifully. “Death, like space,” Lenker sings, “The deep sea, a suitcase”. Here, death seems unknown but less than terrifying in her hands; it’s simply another room waiting and hidden behind a locked door.
Along the way, the band employ some weird methods that ultimately end up making sense; often allowing their varied surroundings to creep into the creative process. Many of the songs recorded in Upstate New York with collaborator Sam Evian are particularly experimental; the easy and ambling ‘Certainty’ came about during a power-cut, with Evian playing his bass part through a bluetooth speaker as the candle-lit band recorded onto a cassette tape. Recorded on the same stint, the smouldering ‘12,000 Lines’ – Lenker’s answer to the classic love song – was recorded immediately after a freezing-cold dip in a creek, wetsuits dripping onto the studio floor. On the twinkling title-track, meanwhile, one of the credited instruments is an icicle (the band sampled the sound of them shattering).
There’s a certain looseness that suits Big Thief well across the whole record. Those in search of a tightly cohesive album knitted around a single concept have probably come to the wrong place entirely – but for a sprawling answer to the band’s two huge 2019 breakthrough records ‘Two Hands’ and ‘U.F.F.O’, then look no further.
Release date: February 11
Release label: 4AD