Crikey, but Big Thief have had a busy COVID.
4AD’s Brooklynite indie darlings issued their fourth album, ‘Two Hands’ (billed as the “earth twin” to their hugely successful ‘U.F.O.F.’) in October 2019, and they’re already back with a twenty-track, 84-minute, monster of an album, ‘Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You’. When you add to that the idea that there were also 2020 solo albums from Big Thief members Adrianne Lenker (4AD), Buck Meek (Keeled Scales), and James Krivchenia (self-released), and you are looking at a band who seem to be going through an almost Renaissance-level burst of creativity.
And one might be tempted to suspect that, in the midst of such an outpouring of new music, (or even just on a twenty-track album), there might be a struggle to maintain an ‘All killer, no filler’ approach, but actually there is very little on this self-proclaimed ’behemoth’ of an album which is of little consequence.
Certainly there are some ‘take it or leave it’ tracks, which it’s hard to imagine will make a Big Thief live set as a priority; and tracks like ‘Sparrow’, ‘No Reason’, Dried Roses’ and ‘12000 Lines’, all delightful in their own way, don’t particularly tear up any daisies, perhaps especially in a collection of twenty, which contains some outstanding moments, the like of which we’ve come to expect from the band.
Those outstanding moment come from across the full range of Big Thief influences. The opener, ‘Change’ has a distinct country blues vibe and sounds a bit like it was recorded in your Mam’s front room. And – whether this is my lens or Big Thief’s is open to debate – at one level ‘Change’ seems to address relationship failure, it has a lyric which is only too easily read as pandemic melancholy, with Lenker asking us, “Would you live forever, never dying while everything around passes? Would you smile forever, never crying while everything you know passes? Death’s like a door to a place we’ve never been before”.
‘Change’ sets the tone for the whole; in that inescapable feeling it’s a pandemic album, and in an almost ‘session’ recording feel present throughout the album; a faintly-flawed, vulnerable production atmosphere which not only speaks of lockdown, but which adds a warmth and an authenticity to the collection.
At track three, ‘Spud Infinity’ (and, who knew Americans know about spuds?) brings a big ol’ swing of country twang and a burst of violins and jaw harp which is straight outta Memphis, in what sounds initially like it might be a redneck plea for environmentalism – “What’s it gonna take to free the sea?” – until some typical whackery kicks in; “Kiss the one you are right now, kiss your body up and down, other than your elbows, cos as for your elbows they’re on their own…”
Between the two, ‘Time Escaping’ with its ‘rush of energy’, is a glorious clangy, rhythm-driven piece of quirky extravagance which, in a better world, would be regarded as classic pop and a palpable hit. And even here, in the more art house moments, this is an album that has a lovely intimacy in its sound, and more than a hint that this was actually great FUN to make; a group of mates enjoying an opportunity to create together; “it’s music, it’s music”, a gleeful Lenker injects into the joy.
And that divide/marriage between the folky, intimate country Big Thief, and the more left-field new noise, challenging Big Thief is what governs the album. The outstanding track is arguably the title track, ‘Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You’, which has a nod to Kate Bush in the vocal and a big chiming background. ‘Blurred View’ is a late night, smoke-filled bar room of a song, with a bit of a dance beat and a proximity vocal which feels warmly close in the headphones. ‘Red Moon’ brings back the violinist for a bit more country folk and a back yard, moonshine atmosphere. ‘Certainty’ is a simple, pleasing country tune with a lovely backing, vocal. ‘Simulation Swarm’ (with a hint of Suzanne Vega) is a brilliant little song, which is as infectious as Omicron. And the closer ‘Blue Lightning’ is a drunken bar room swagger of a tune, deeply catchy, with a live band count in and a slightly squiffy squeak on the Lenker vocal which reminds a wee bit of Melanie.
It’s not a massive leap forward for Big Thief, but it is very welcome, very lovely, very good and – most of all – very them; very Big Thief. There’s more than enough here for everybody.