Review by Connor Pflederer
Throughout their six-year career, one of Big Thief’s biggest strengths has always been their ability to seamlessly flow between genres, from Americana to indie to straightforward folk, all while staying true to their singular sound. Their 2016 and 2017 ventures, Masterpiece and Capacity, showcased an abrasive alt rock sound, while still occasionally pulling back for gentler moments. The group transitioned into a more traditional folk flavor on LPs three and four, the watertight U.F.O.F and Two Hands, apparently considered “sister” records by the band. Both opted for a less explosive quality with more subdued songwriting. On their 5th studio album, Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You, they take their sonic exploration to a new level, featuring a wide array of genre influences while managing to sound firmly grounded in their roots.
That mouthful of a title should give listeners an idea of what they’re in for. While moving through this twenty-track, eighty-minute behemoth, I find myself drawing comparisons to the Beatles’ White Album. This isn’t a result of similar songwriting or genre—Adrianne Lenker’s lyricism is more reminiscent of Bob Dylan in his prime—but rather in its sprawling scale.
The group is not concerned the whiplash some listeners may feel between two tracks like opener Change, an extremely listenable folk ballad that muses on the inescapable shifting of our surroundings and relationships, and Time Escaping, whose driving beat seems to be barely held together by muted guitar plucks and taps. Some songs feature light electronic elements—the spare accent of a warm synth, or the presence of a drum machine on Wake Me Up to Drive that offers an intimate feeling to match its nostalgic lyrics. Lead single Little Things is a swirling and near-psychedelic experience that layers Lenker’s reverb-soaked vocals over a dense soundscape of shimmering acoustic guitars, the occasional screech of an electric guitar bursting through. Love Love Love hearkens back to the harsh indie rock sound of their early work. There are even cuts on here that are simply tried-and-true country songs, such as Red Moon and Spud Infinity, the latter of which features a fiddle and springy jaw harp.
Each member of Big Thief brings something vital to their sound: Buck Meek’s distinct guitar lines weave strange and unfamiliar paths around Lenker’s lyrics, the bass work of Max Oleartchik provides a strong foundation for the ambitious scale of the songwriting, and James Krivchenia’s loose drumming style relentlessly pulls the rest of the instrumentation along with it. But after having had the privilege of seeing them perform live at the Hi-Fi Annex in Indianapolis back in September, it becomes clear that lead singer Adrianne Lenker is the heart and soul of this band. On stage, she gets lost in the music, entering a kind of flow state that leaves both the audience and the rest of the band entranced. Lenker has been recording music since 2014, releasing four solo albums that mostly feature only her voice and an acoustic guitar. On Dragon New Warm Mountain, her lyricism reaches a new peak, firmly cementing her as one of the most important voices in this generation of songwriters.
Her words often conjure abstract images of nature: the earth beneath our feet, the wind, the sky, and the creatures that inhabit it (Sparrow: “Wrapped in the wings of a sparrow / Beak is as sharp as an arrow / Sings in a whispering whistle / Sleeps in the ivy and thistle”). Other tracks offer takes on the nature of life and consciousness (Spud Infinity: “What’s it gonna take / To free the celestial body?”) But her true talent lies in her ability to shrink these grand ideas into microcosms of the human experience: on the aforementioned track, she also name-drops garlic bread and potato knish. As has been the case through her career, the subject that lies at the core of her words is simple: love. From album closer Blue Lightning: “Til the end, will you be my friend? / I wanna be the mountain, kiss the sky / Yeah, I wanna be the vapor gets you high / Yeah, I wanna feel so happy that I cry”.
On their latest record, Big Thief realizes their full potential. The band knows how cold the world has been as of late, and with Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You, they provide a source of warmth and comfort to get lost in. Many of the tracks on here rank among their best. They sound confident and self-assured in their ability to make a twenty-song album without a single miss. This is their magnum opus, and somehow, I don’t doubt that they will top themselves in whatever direction they choose to go in from here.