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Discovering the sound of Big Thief

Artwork from Big Thief’s album U.F.O.F.

I’m listening to “Paul”, my first real encounter with the band’s music. It’s an astonishingly good track, one that captivated me in the first place and led me with curiosity to explore the rest of the Big Thief discography. Somehow I’ve ended up with a copy of their latest record, U.F.O.F. in my possession at a time in my life where I’m the least invested in creating art. 

Late nights and assignments, a combination of the two; the typhoon of everyday life has been the backdrop to my uncovering of the band’s discography. There were songs from abysskiss that I listened to frequently last year, like “cradle” and “from” (the latter of which reappears reimagined on this record). But there’s also “Mary”, a standout single I stumbled across recently, from their sophomore record Capacity. It isn’t about the biblical apostle (although I did initially perceive it this way), but one of the numerous characters, both fictional and real in Lenker’s world. These characters, as we all know, mythological or not – populate Big Thief records frequently. 

On the song “From”, one of these characters is in labor. Rising up from a background of the otherwise stillness of life, Lenker’s voice moves to a low shriek, offering a brief flashback to the haunting intimacy of the stripped back version. The version I’m listening to now seems to be embellished with percussion and backing vocals. I think it’s fitting then, that the other song that made the cut from last year’s record is about death. “Terminal, we both know”, she acknowledges on “Terminal Paradise”. It’s a definite return to the desolation, but in Lenker’s work, this is never a means to an end. “I will blossom in your sail, every dream and waking hour”, she sings and I discern that she’s not making a promise so as surrendering to the inevitable.

On the song “Orange”, the sunlit strumming of the guitars makes an attempt at shaking off what little remains of winter here in Toronto. It doesn’t seem like we’re quite there yet because I still can’t go anywhere without my winter jacket. As I throw on my hood to brace the early morning winds, Lenker proclaims orange to be “the color of her love”. I push my earbuds further in my ear; partially to keep them from falling out, but mostly to keep the sound in. The middle part of the record seems to finds itself energized and even content at times. I mentioned to a friend that I could hear a strong folk and country influence on “Cattails”. “Just folk”, he suggested after listening to the song, and I shrugged nonchalantly in response. I had long given up on semantics after all, and so I was fine to just retreat to my senses. I could still hear the drawl in Lenker’s voice and the strumming of guitars that seemed to imitate a banjo by the time I arrived home that night. “You don’t need to why,” she’s singing, as if in response to the lonesome listener.

The next morning, I’m sitting in front of a computer going through different songs. There’s talk of autumn rain and dead bugs on windshields on the song, “Century”. I’m caught up in the vibe, and to my surprise, I see through my basement window to notice that it’s actually is raining, although I know that I could wake up the next day to find frost covering the ground. The rain doesn’t seem to stop though, and perhaps it really is a sign that spring is here. As I return my attention to the song, I’m curious to know what Lenker means when she says, “we have the same power”. There’s no one on the internet that I can talk to about this record just yet and that’s a weird feeling. I resign and let the album continue at its own pace. 

I’m thrown off by the song, “Strange” and how different it sounds. Initially, it’s too upbeat for my taste, but then I settle into the ride quite nicely. The end of the song has Lenker almost chanting over a majestic sea of guitars. “You have wings of gold, you will never grow old,” she promises.

If you’ve ever read “Watchmen”, you know about that iconic scene where Dr. Manhattan is sitting alone on a rock on Mars, contemplating his existence and the futility of humanity. For some reason, this is what comes to mind when I’m listening to “Open Desert”. The words that Lenker sings become nothing but vocalizations and eventually exist as a part of the landscape itself. “Are you hearing this?” I want to ask, to nobody in particular.

Traveling frequently in my own microcosm of the world, I’ve found solace in the ever-shifting narratives and settings that the record traverses. It seems insignificant when compared to the vast distances traveled in a matter of days by musicians on tour, but it’s an analogy that works for me. “Drive into New York with me,” Lenker urges on the track “Betsy”. She says it with such conviction that when I look out the window, I can trick myself into believing that the sun is setting rather than just coming up. The employment of her lower range comes at an opportune moment.

It’s five in the morning and I’m on the back of the bus. Just this morning I had noticed a new profile up on Pitchfork titled, “Big Thief Can’t Stop Moving Forward”. After having read it, I was struck by how good it was. The profile was another piece of the band’s legacy I had been slowly working towards uncovering. In it, Lenker talks about her early days in Brooklyn and how she worked in a cafe delivering pastries and played shows by night to make rent. Today, even as a recognized name in the indie rock scene, she admits that continually working is a must if she wants to make a living. “You get used to waking up and not knowing where in the world you are for a few seconds,” bassist Max Oleartchik says in the piece. “Every single thing changes every day—the water you drink, the air, the smells—except these people that you are with.”

Photo by Michael Buisha

And so in the same way the characters in the song are absorbed into the myth, so too does the artist. “She is both dreamer and dream”, Lenker croons on opener “Contact”. I’m unsure of exactly where this idea originates from – that the observer is not separate from what is being observed: perhaps traditional Buddhist teachings or new age spirituality – and it seems that quantum physics is also lending a hand. There’s a reference to the “law of attraction” on the title track as well.

Leaving home for the second time, having so much to do and always striving towards something has helped put things into perspective. Not by the process of putting things into order, but seeing clearly for the first time. With the stroke of a pen, Lenker brings these characters to life – not by creating them but merging with them entirely. It’s through the songs that I realize the universality of these experiences; whether the band is swimming through three minutes of nebulous bliss on the spectacular “U.F.O.F” or lingering in the intimacy of penultimate track, “Jenni”, the characters give meaning to the music. It’s the same meaning that we look for outside of ourselves, only to retreat and discover that the discerning line between ourselves and the world is mythological.

In a way, writing this piece has been an exercise in anchoring myself to that place, where the art itself is both the means to an end and the end itself. Taking lessons from my own life, this is a reminder that I can return to that place no matter how far I think I’ve strayed. 

There’s a moment during the opening minutes of the record where the murky orchestration that Lenker swims in gives way to a loud screech, and suddenly a legion of distorted guitars rush to fill in the spaces. As the band wades into turbulent territory, they seem to uptake the challenge by giving us insurmountable proof in the form of songs; songs that detail scenes, capturing both the ordinary and extraordinary with a level of sharpness that cut through the fog of everyday life. To follow them on this journey isn’t to fixate on passing landmarks; it’s to be in that place completely.

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