Genre: Cosmic Folk
Favorite Tracks: “Shoulders,” “Not,” “Forgotten Eyes”
How do you follow up a masterpiece? If you’re Big Thief, you make another. Less than six months after releasing the cerebral U.F.O.F., Big Thief return to the scene with a surprise follow-up, TWO HANDS, an atypical move for a band in the year our lord 2019. Rather than riding the wave of success from their May release with a standard set of tour dates and promotion, the band immediately went back to work in the studio, recalling the days when great artists were often churning out multiple classics in small windows of time (I guess technically they are still riding that first wave, but you get my point). With the release of TWO HANDS, Big Thief isn’t just throwing some lipstick on the leftovers from U.F.O.F., either. Like Radiohead with KID A and AMNESIAC in 2000/2001, Bob Dylan for the entirety of the ‘60s, or even Nelly with his 2004 SWEAT / SUIT double release, this is a band at an artistic peak, the music spilling out faster than I can text my dad to find my old Nelly CDs in the attic.
Described by the band as “the Earth twin” to U.F.O.F, TWO HANDS is more grounded in both its content and approach. If U.F.O.F. represents the abstract of the mind, TWO HANDS is the flesh. It is raw and ragged, a stark contrast to the polished neatness of its sister album. There are few overdubs to be found in the production of TWO HANDS, and because much of the album was recorded live in the studio, it creates an atmosphere evocative of an intimate rock show—you can even hear band members communicating with each other in the background of some tracks if you listen closely enough. There is a certain comfort to be found when listening to a band operating in perfect harmony, and the togetherness of the Brooklyn quartet is tangible. As frontwoman Adrianne Lenker croons, “Hand me that cable / Plug into anything / I am unstable” on the opening track “Rock and Sing,” you can feel the band in the room with you, the warmth of the guitars and steady drums offering a hug while you heed Lenker’s previous command to cry with her.
On the album’s lead single and emotional centerpiece, “Not,” Lenker attempts to describe a feeling that can only be explained by listing all that it isn’t. “It’s not the energy reeling,” she states, before listing everything else; it’s “not the planet not spinning,” she pleads, nor is it “the hunger revealing” or “the vacant wilderness vying.” “Not” is a ferocious powerhouse that builds on itself with swelling guitars as Lenker’s voice trembles with a sense of urgency. The tension in the song intensifies until Lenker finally erupts into an Earth-quaking guitar solo, somehow finding a level of catharsis in the unknown.
Violence reverberates throughout TWO HANDS as Lenker explores its close connection with love and intimacy, a familiar theme from prior Big Thief albums. “The Toy” tackles gun violence, while the somber ballad “Wolf” paints a brutal image of “blood dripping” post-attack, as Lenker howls over the gentle, acoustic plucking. On “Shoulders,” she cries, “And the blood of the man who killed my mother with his hands is in me / It’s in me in my veins.” Her voice hangs as she sings this line. Is it an admission of culpability and shame? Perhaps it is a surrender to her truth as she searches for beauty in death.
There are tender moments mixed into the album as well. The title track is a melancholic delight brought to life by Lenker’s charming falsettos as she ponders how a relationship can be saved by repeatedly trying to answer the same questions (spoiler: it can’t). On “Forgotten Eyes,” Lenker shows compassion by advocating for the homeless. In declaring “forgotten tongue is the language of love,” she reminds us all to show a little more kindness to our fellow beings while we’re still here.
Big Thief’s greatest strength has always been in their duality. Just as their loudness demands your attention, the album’s quieter moments will tell you as much about the band’s identity as anything. Whether you prefer TWO HANDS or U.F.O.F. over the other will likely depend on which elements of Big Thief’s music compel you the most—if you’re looking to learn who Big Thief is, I’d go with the former. TWO HANDS is the quintessential piece of Big Thief’s ever-growing catalog, a defining moment for a band that seems to be having a lot of those these days.