'Two Hands' Captures Big Thief's Force And Intimacy
This week, Big Thief will release its second album of the year. The double play alone doesn't capture just how prolific this band is, though. Two Hands is the third Big Thief release in the past year and six days, if you count lead songwriter Adrianne Lenker's solo record, abysskiss. Broaden the count from there, and it is the fifth Big Thief-related LP of the past year and a half, including solo outings from guitarist Buck Meek and drummer James Krivchenia. Big Thief is like a hydrant with its top knocked off. Music is pouring from Big Thief.
The band released U.F.O.F., its first record of 2019, in May. That album was recorded in a converted barn in the woods of Washington state, and is the band's lushest work to date. It sounds misty and dark, a Northwestern transmission of twelve largely downtempo songs, layered with synthesizers and voices in the background. Lyrically, U.F.O.F. is filled with encounters with the unknown, the strange and distant: UFOs and other people. The band calls the record "the celestial twin." Two Hands is "the earth twin."
This twin business may sound like it's one step away from healing crystals, but as is often the case with Big Thief, look twice and the band is onto something. U.F.O.F.gazed skyward, Two Hands is grounded. U.F.O.F.was drenched in distant reverbs, Two Handsis dry and close. U.F.O.F.'s guitars were opalescent like the Pat Metheny records Lenker grew up on, Two Hands' guitars are sandpaper rough and searing. More than anything, though, Two Hands captures the best of what makes the group's live shows so compelling – their force and immediacy, the unparalleled togetherness of their playing.
Big Thief began tracking Two Hands just days after wrapping recording on U.F.O.F. All the momentum of that first recording process seems to have paid off in the second. The band members sound more deeply comfortable playing with each other than ever. This kind of immersion in their music and each other is a hallmark of Big Thief. They live the tradition of woodshedding – a jazz term for when artists remove themselves from the rest of the world to practice endlessly. Think Sonny Rollins on the Williamsburg Bridge, or The Band in the basement at Big Pink. From the beginning, that's been Big Thief's way.
You can trace the band's origin to when Lenker and Meek bought a van named Bonnie and spent two years as a duo known as Buck and Anne, going out around the country playing every show they could find – from proper venues to backyard barbecues. When Big Thief became a four-piece, they toured voraciously while releasing a steady stream of new music. They started work on 2017's Capacity well under a year of finishing Big Thief's debut, 2016's Masterpiece. Music came from the backseats of their new tour van Roofus (a mobile woodshed), or wherever they decamped to, night after night on their very long tours (hopefully not an actual woodshed).
"What we create together as friends is 10% music and the rest is just time," Lenker told the LA Times this May. "We've melted into each other," bassist Max Oleartchik averred. Though several members have worked on solo projects, the members of Big Thief have lived and breathed Big Thief for years. The band speaks of its writing process with reverence – songs are more received than written. But its practice is mundane in its own way, as much hard work as divination. The group rarely collaborates with other musicians, and the same producer has helmed all four of its records. Big Thief's new releases sound not so much like distinct artistic statements as they do reports from four dedicated canal builders, carving a deeper channel for this music to run through.
Two Hands is the deepest the channel has gotten yet. It is spontaneous, and very nearly a live record. All but two of the vocal takes were done in one go, and the instruments are mostly captured live as well. Several of the songs on the record – including "Shoulders," "Not," "The Toy," and "Rock and Sing" – have been around for years, some as live favorites. As such, Two Hands doesn't necessarily represent a dramatic shift in Big Thief's songwriting so much as a leap forward in the range of things it can capture in the studio. That the band is only just recording these songs suggests it hasn't felt able to do them justice until now.
The album opens with "Rock and Sing." I first heard the song at a soundcheck in 2017, where Lenker was attempting and then declining to wear in-ear monitors because they made it hard for her to hear the band around her in the way she wanted. On tape, "Rock and Sing" is one of Big Thief's most beautiful performances to date precisely because of how closely the band is listening to each other. The guitars gently echo the vocal melody as the drums and bass push and pull at small phrases here and there, rarely repeating their parts verbatim. That intimacy and the seamless intertwining of the instruments pervade the record. "Rock and Sing" is sweet as the lullaby its title suggests, and bracing, too, because it sounds close and full, as if the band is playing in a circle around you.
That closeness is both a product of the band's dynamic as players and the production style it's been cultivating since Capacity. That record was noted for many things, but audio engineers coveted its drum sounds especially – its bouncy, earthen kick, its sucker punch snare and its airy cymbals. Across four albums, producer Andrew Sarlo and, on some projects, drummer and mixer Krivchenia have sculpted a sound that gives every instrument character and presence, while also sounding very naturally captured. This is something of a magic trick. You can hear hands playing these instruments. They are crisp and clear, but they don't sound generically pristine. It took Big Thief awhile, though, to master the distortion and feedback that define its live shows. On its first record, Masterpiece, those sounds were still beyond its recordings, so the band recreated that energy instead by slamming the tracks through condensers that turned its fearsome guitars into dense, concussive blasts. Over the course of the ensuing three albums, Big Thief has found a way to capture the full dynamic range of its electrics – from purls and crackles to roars and bursts. "Not," the lead single off the record, maps that territory from its tense opening strums to a howling solo towards the end.
There are beautiful and quiet songs here, too, though – the acoustic ballad, "Wolf," especially, as well as the southern-tinged "Replaced." Balancing between these poles – distorted danger and gentle beauty – is chief among Big Thief's unique gifts. Lenker's lyrics often find her characters torn between the two, and that tight production style befits songs that are often about closeness, and the elation or threat of it. She sings about the problems and promises of other people, and the peril of being stuck in a body near them. Her characters are watchful and eloquent about other characters' desire for them – the dual threat of danger and the promise of protection they offer. These songs often find their way to the bedroom, the car, or the home – private places where two people, very near together, confront what they want from each other and what they can't get. That's where Two Hands begins from – a room and a body. "I am that naked thing swimming in air," she sings, "Why does that mean anything? Why do you stare?"
U.F.O.F.often watched all this drama unfold at a mute remove – lights under the doorway, strange objects in the sky. On that record's climax, "Jenni," Lenker sang "Jenni's in my room" over and over again as if she was paralyzed by her proximity. Lenker has always filled her songs with names like this: The last album begun with "Jodi" as an invocation, and ranged from there through Caroline, Violet and Betsy before it reached Jenni. On the band's first two albums, there were songs named for Mary, Haley, Paul, Randy and Lorraine. There are names all over Lenker's songs because naming another person (or sometimes just another part of herself), is a way of accenting the difference between two things, which pays off when that distance collapses or when it becomes unbridgeable. Every other Big Thief album has at least two songs named after somebody, but Two Hands has none. In the songs themselves, it's mostly you and I. This music feels direct and inviting in that way – filtered through Lenker's distinct vantage, but not trapped in a private world. In fact, it is being billed in the publicity surrounding the record as "political" – a record very much of the world.
But these songs are only political in the usual sense if you squint. "Forgotten Eyes" is about the experience of walking by a forgotten person and doing nothing for them, "The Toy" is about gun violence, "Cut My Hair" touches on some staple gender fluidity. There is merit to the idea that this is a political record, though, but mainly in the way all Big Thief albums are political. Big Thief makes music about what it means to encounter fully your separateness from another person, even the distance between you and your own body. For years now, the band has described itself this way: "Listening to Big Thief is like the feeling of looking at a dog and suddenly marveling that it is like you but very not like you." Big Thief's songs are about what you do with differences like that, the space between living things – how that space can be filled with violence, with love, with lust. Politics, in the broadest sense, is the work of navigating those spaces. These songs have voices you can trust because they never pull their punches when working through that distance. Lenker knows some people might kick that dog and still love it.
For all the gentle mysticism swirling around Big Thief, the universe of its songs is filled with violence. On "Real Love," one of the first singles the band ever released, Lenker sings, "Having your lips split / By the one who loves you / Real love ... makes your lungs black." Capacity was literally bursting at the seams with that love, filled to the brim with the fluids it produced. "You cut the flesh of your left thumb / Using your boyfriend's knife / Seventeen, you took his come," she sings on "Mythological Beauty," "And you gave birth to your first life." Violence and love are often very near each other in this lyrical world. On Two Hands' "Shoulders," the narrator encounters her mother's dead body over a jagged, swinging guitar line. "Please wake up...touch my skin and tell me where you've been," Lenker sings, "The blood of the man who killed my mother with his hands is in me." That feeling of love, violence, estrangement and the legacy of it all courses through this music, as does the urge to face it head on and overcome it. Those feelings find their purest expression not in Lenker's lyrics, but in the sound this band makes when it opens up and pushes back. On Two Hands, the band is truly able to harness that force in full, musically. And it also answers these feelings of difference and estrangement with an implicit antidote: Big Thief's audible unconditional closeness and its careful, utopian listening.
Big Thief has done something impressive in releasing two albums in 12 months, but not something that hasn't been done recently by Ariana Grande ( Sweetenerand thank u, next), notably by Guns N' Roses ( Use Your Illusion Iand IIcame out on the same day, but who's counting); poorly by Bruce Springsteen ( Human Touchand Lucky Town) and immaculately by The Beatles (the" White Album," Yellow Submarine and Abbey Road all came out between November 1968 and September 1969). That isn't really the story here. What this record represents is an accomplishment that is deeper and longer than the headline achievement. The members of Big Thief have spent much of their waking adult lives playing music together. Now more than ever, you can hear that. Up until this year, the band's album covers featured pictures of Lenker's family. Now they are pictures of the band – from a ways off in U.F.O.F., close enough to fill the frame in Two Hands. With every new piece of music, they achieve a deeper communion. Some families you're born to; others you make up as you go, out of all of the people very near to you – even the ones you can't quite reach.
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.