Favorite Tracks: “UFOF”, “Open Desert”, “Century”, “Betsy”, “Jenni”
New York-based Big Thief take a jog together every morning. It makes complete, perfect sense: a group of musicians who push each other in new directions, moving as one, breathing as one. This symbiosis is evident in their newest release, U.F.O.F. (the F. standing for “Friend”). Big Thief’s third album is the group’s most cohesive work to date, honing in on a vision that feels more unified than ever. Is it an afternoon spent in an overgrown field under a sky on the verge of a thunderstorm? Driving down a stretching desert highway in the dead of night? Upon each new listen, one can conjure up a new sensorial picture by simply allowing Big Thief to take them for the ride.
Their debut, MASTERPIECE, swung from the saloon grandeur of title track “Masterpiece” to the hushed intimacy of “Lorraine,” exhibiting dynamic range and appreciation for multiple sonic sensibilities. Their following album, CAPACITY, had a slightly more narrowed palette. And yet CAPACITY, in a way, felt like a continuation of MASTERPIECE, as if the two albums existed in the same haunting train of thought, two photographs found in the same musty attic on some rainy afternoon. U.F.O.F. is separate from these, a fully-realized statement in which each component is highlighted by the rest.
Devotees to the band’s previous work will find much to feast upon in Lenker’s lyrical work. In titular track “UFOF,” she confides,“The best kiss I ever had / Is the flickering / Of the water so clear and bright.” This theme continues on “Open Desert,” which glimmers with the same iridescent sheen as “Mythological Beauty,” one of CAPACITY’s many standouts. Its achingly bewitching chorus runs through the song like a woolen thread; “Through the poison image / Brave surrender / Kiss the water” stands amongst silvery sweet bells and angelic harmonies, weaving its mysterious lullaby. Some of the loveliest moments on the record are Lenker’s non-verbalized vocalizations, the small coos and sighs that season the songs with unguarded catharsis. They happen on “Open Desert,” then again on “Betsy,” and return on “Terminal Paradise”—expressions on breath where words do no not suffice.
At this stage in a band’s career, many revel in a chance to spread their wingspan and go bigger, louder, bolder. Not Big Thief. Instead, they’ve curled inwards, gone sparser, quieter, and deeper. Each track operates as a part of the whole, like a niche ecosystem in which each element of flora and fauna is essential to the survival of the other. There’s a comfort and an uneasiness that exists in tandem. You can hear it in the indiscernible vocal samples in “UFOF,” the erratic drumbeat on “From,” and the grief-stricken quiver in Lenker’s voice on “Terminal Paradise.” U.F.O.F. meanders through liminal space, constantly adjusting and re-adjusting but never quite fully settling on any one groove or pattern. It respirates and writhes, teeming with life and the inevitability of death. On “Terminal Paradise,” a track also featured on Lenker’s solo album ABYSSKISS, she warbles, “See my death become a trail / And the trail leads to a flower / I will blossom in your sail / Every dreamed and waking hour.” Here comes a new vein of folk that dances with its own shadow, aware of what was while awaiting the next. U.F.O.F. offers gentle speculation, approaching life’s hardest-to-grasp subjects with a feather-soft touch.
In the realm of Big Thief, simple names are endowed with near-mythic qualities. It’s been a recurring theme since the early days of CAPACITY. Late-album cut “Jenni” joins the ranks of “Mary” and “Paul,” a slow-burner that commands attention with its curious false start. From there, its charcoal glow grows with the incantation “Jenni’s in my room,” a simple yet potent chant that leaves everything up to imagination. The ‘90s-tinged slowcore jam summons the spirit of Slowdive, channeling their same monochromatic energy. It’s the only track on U.F.O.F that truly growls, letting off pent-up steam in its swelling conclusion. The last resounding chord lingers like the last trail of campfire smoke, capped off by the bare-boned “Magic Dealer.”
The last minute of U.F.O.F. leaves us in a fog of whirs and crackles that slowly subside into nothingness. That last minute. . . Could it be that the U.F.O. Friend has arrived at last? Or is it simply the soft hum of a breathing machine, or a sprinkler on a dewy lawn? If Big Thief has taught me anything, I’d like to believe it’s all of these things and more, simultaneously and eternally.