Big Thief’s new double album, “Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You,” was not made for casual engagement. Running 81 minutes, it demands serious listening. The band’s sonics are growing more laid-back, as queer singer/guitarist Adrianne Lenker’s vision explores complex emotions with an underlying joy. On “Change,” she anticipates “death, like a door to a place we’ve never been before.” Her musings on mortality set the stage for an album on which the band itself undergoes metamorphosis.
Since their 2016 debut “Masterpiece,” Big Thief have kept up a steady stream of music, including solo albums by guitarist Buck Meek and Adrianne Lenker. In fact, Lenker’s such a prolific songwriter that she has released three albums on her own since Big Thief formed. Her history as a musician goes back 15 years — her first solo album was a failed attempt to turn her into a teenage pop star. Back in 2019, Big Thief released two albums, separated by six months. “U.F.O.F.” settled on a spacey, mostly acoustic sound, while “Two Hands” rocked out. (“Not,” completed 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” has been preceded by eight singles, beginning last August.
Big Thief’s music has always been connected to folk music and a ‘60s/’70s singer/songwriter tradition, but starting with “U.F.O.F,” the band started to chafe at its potential constraints. “Two Hands” was recorded almost entirely live in the studio, with Lenker’s vocals also recorded in one take. The band has left in performances where her voice sounds shaky as long as the song works. “Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You” tries out some new sounds for the band. “Time Escaping” uses detuned, prepared strings to change the guitar into a percussion instrument. “Spud Infinity” heads towards Appalachia, with jaw harp and fiddle. The band’s influences stretch past Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and Bob Dylan, deep into American roots music.
Lenker studied music theory at the Berkelee School of Music. Her guitar solos and use of alternate tunings and guitar solos show this education’s benefits. But Big Thief’s music can be rough and raucous in a studied, deliberate way, suggesting the Neil Young of “Time Fades Away” and ‘Tonight’s the Night.”
This album doesn’t have the studied eclecticism of the Beatles’ “white album” or the Clash’s “Sandinista!” Most of its songs fit comfortably into the same genre. But it keeps changing tone. One can picture Big Thief performing these songs on acoustic guitars in a cabin nestled in a forest. (Actually, that was the setting for Lenker recording her solo albums “songs” and “instrumentals.”) But their ambition defies their casual sound. With further listens, they’re also careful studio productions. For the first time, the band has worked with an outside musician, Mat Davidson, who contributes accordion, piano, recorder, and fiddle. (Lenker’s brother Noah also sings backup vocals and plays the jaw harp on “Spud Infinity.”) This is evident from the electronic feel of “Blurred Views,” where fuzzed guitar blends into synthesizer and the drumming imitates complex, programmed percussion. “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, most immediately striking song on this album — it will probably take off on adult alternative radio. “Spud Infinity” ponders the life cycle of the potato. It could have been an easy allegorical trick or a novelty gimmick, especially with the arrangement’s backwoods sound, but “What’s it gonna take to free their celestial body?” and Lenker’s more mystical musings in the second verse feel entirely sincere.
Although Lenker grew up in Minnesota, she sings with a notable drawl. Her lyrics spin poetic conceits out of everyday events. “Mythological Beauty” described her childhood from the second-person perspective of her mother. The bluntness, even vulgarity, of “Seventeen, you took his cum/And you gave birth to your first life,” referring to a brother her mother gave up for adoption when she was a teenager, was startling. But the song does something very rare, exploring the ways that becoming a parent robbed Lenker’s own mother of part of her youth. She returns to this subject here, dedicating the final verse of “Simulation Swarm” to her brother. Before Lenker talked about her sexuality in interviews, Big Thief’s music was up front about her attraction to men and women. She’s written love songs to both sexes and used pronouns ambiguously, even within the same song. On “Not,” she sings “Nor the boy I’m seeing/With her long hair.” “12000 Lines” is a love song dedicated to a woman.
“Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You” both extends the vision Big Thief have already delivered and ventures into new ground. But it all sounds like a natural development for the band. On this album, they confront the future with acoustic guitars in hand, suggesting that surviving the “simulation swarm” requires close attention to the past.
BIG THIEF | “Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You” | 4AD Records | Feb. 11th