Genre: Indie Folk
Favorite Tracks: “Spud Infinity,” “Flower of Blood,” “Blurred View,” “Wake Me Up To Drive,” “Simulation Swarm”
When Adrianne Lenker was asked what it felt like to be back in the studio with Big Thief after almost a year apart due to COVID-19, she offered up that “one of the things that bonds us together as a band is pure magic.” The band had just finished recording their fifth studio release, DRAGON NEW WARM MOUNTAIN I BELIEVE IN YOU, a sprawling double album, tracked in four separate sessions in four different states in the span of five months last year. After dropping two critically acclaimed albums, U.F.O.F. and TWO HANDS, eight months apart back in 2019, the band has decided to forgo a break in between and unleash DRAGON in one fell swoop. Clocking in at 80 minutes across 20 tracks, the album continues the band’s mind-boggling trend of continuing to top everything that has come before it.
As if almost self-aware of the seemingly daunting journey they are about to guide their audience through, Lenker quickly utters “okay” before she strums the first chords of album opener “Change,” the kind, soft, swaying folk ballad that the band has mastered at this point in their career. “Would you live forever / Never die,” Lenker asks softly, her voice quiet, yet still soaring over a bare beat and whispered chords. Beginning DRAGON with some well-tread sonic ground is just one of several examples of how the sequencing of the songs on the record makes it easily digestible; just as you think you are cleared to settle in for what you think a Big Thief record should be, the band drops you into “Time Escaping,” a chaotic groove driven by pulsing electronic percussion that will have you second guessing what you know about their music.
There is a good chance that a lot of fans were already beginning to question the nature of the bands sound, especially as they continued to release single after single leading up to the album’s release, or as they began road testing some of the songs on their tour last summer. Some songs, like the incredibly catchy “Spud Infinity,” or the lulling “Sparrow,” have been popping up in live setlists for several years—it’s a treat to receive them in their final form. The most dramatic transformation comes on the album’s title track. The take the band was unleashing on live audiences last year was an absolute monster, a distorted, groovy beast that was truly deserving of the “Dragon” portion of its title, and unlike anything Big Thief had ever done before. The version presented here is a much more delicate, haunting arrangement, as if the band were being careful to avoid waking the titular dragon that was its predecessor. It’s the closest I got to feeling any shred of disappointment throughout the record, as I had been dying to relive that aggressive, mind-blowing version, but given the band’s incredible ability to sequence this many songs with this many different sonic textures into one cohesive record, it is difficult to imagine how that version would have fit here. The final product is a soft celebration of the magic that surrounds this band.
A little further down the tracklist, the rolling, finger picking of the short and sweet “Heavy Bend” serves as a hypnotizing transition into two of the album’s crowning achievements: “Flower of Blood” and “Blurred View.” The first lives up to it’s Cure-alluding title, with its chorus soaked guitars and Buck Meek’s screeching leads carrying the weight of Lenker’s hopeless vulnerability as she sings “When you find the lonely lover / Climb into the darkest room / Feel afraid, surrender your power.” The eighties melancholia continues in “Blurred View,” a hollow lament driven by Max Oleartchik’s bouncing fretless bass line and James Krivchenia’s crisp electronic drums. These songs find the band fully immersing themselves in a completely new sound and absolutely nailing it.
It must again be stated that the sequencing of the songs here is key, because right after two moody, reverb-heavy tracks, Big Thief grabs you by the hand and pulls you out onto the saloon dance floor for “Red Moon,” which at moments finds Lenker leaning into her best honky-tonk voice as she yells “That’s my grandma!” If one wanted to do the band a serious disservice by oversimplifying the kind of music they make, they could argue that DNWMIBIY could have been divided into two more cohesively themed records: a country-leaning indie folk record, and a more experimental rock record that finds the band pushing into sounds they’ve yet to explore on previous records. However, there is no point where anything feels misplaced or forced, or like a one-off sonic experiment. You never doubt any of the emotional avenues that Lenker’s songwriting takes you down over the album’s twenty tracks. Each one serves its purpose in getting you to the end destination.
The album closes with “Blue Lightning,” a rowdy barn-stomper that acts as a point of reflection on the questions and concerns raised in “Change.” Instead of contemplating living forever, Lenker settles on, and celebrates the idea of making the most of what she is given when she sings “I wanna live forever til’ I die.” The album ends with a soft laugh from Lenker, followed by one of the band members asking “Okay, what should we do next?” What indeed?
The quality of the quantity of songs presented here is truly impressive. It’s hard to think of another band that can make the idea of “go big or go home” seem so effortless, and maybe that is some of the pure magic Lenker was referring to when she describes what being in Big Thief is like. Hell, we don’t even know if Big Thief considers DRAGON NEW WARM MOUNTAIN I BELIEVE IN YOU to be “going big” at all.The album’s final tracklisting was whittled down from over 40 tracks recorded in the various sessions that led to its release. There could be another dragon sized double-album waiting in the wings, and if it’s got even a fraction of that magic the band exhibits here, I cannot wait to hear it.