There are a dozen details that feel essential when I watch that performance; the face paint and glitter and how and where it’s applied, Max Oleartchik’s braided ponytails (which I hate, for the record), the effortless cool of the way Buck Meek takes up space around the mic, hell, simply the way he moves, Adrianne Lenker’s missing tooth, the heat radiating off of James Krivchenia… The whole performance is the reason you even watch late-night TV performances in the first place, and yet so rarely do we get this kind of hair-raising, go-for-broke performance on TV—not since Future Islands scuffed up Letterman’s floor have I seen a performance that felt instantly iconic. Ready to dramatically implode at any minute, combustible from an overwhelming sense of fury, compassion, and cosmic knowing.
But when I queue up Big Thief’s performance of “Not” on THE LATE SHOW WITH STEPHEN COLBERT, which I’m likely to do when I’m sad, or angry, or looking to gleam a bit of that aforementioned cosmic knowing, I focus on their spacing. Big Thief are positioned in a square, their bodies, even Lenker who is cheating towards the camera and unseen audience, are directed as close to the center as possible, playing for each other, not us. When I saw Big Thief back in April, it was a similar story, the crowd an afterthought to four musicians who are so insanely connected with each others’ essences that it’s palpable, both in the back of the venue and through our television sets.
That performance on Colbert is a gift, if for no other reason than it second-by-second feels like affirmation that Big Thief’s 2019 was real, some kind of tangible proof through the form of a YouTube URL that what they did this year was possible. Certainly when I listen to both U.F.O.F and TWO HANDS I have a hard time wrapping my brain around just how they exist in 2019, because Big Thief aren’t your conventional band, and perhaps it was further proof that 2019 wasn’t your conventional music year. It was a year that saw them endlessly touring, releasing two albums to near universal acclaim, the kind of acclaim thought previously unachievable for an act like Big Thief, and we saw the backlash where Music Twitter endlessly trended debates over just what it all meant.
But Big Thief’s domination felt so quaint. Quiet even. I suppose that’s the plight of indie music after a decade where culture writing blurred endless conversations about poptimism and coverage of mainstream artists writ underdog to such an immeasurable degree that when a band that looks and sounds like Big Thief has a year like 2019, even in spite of their obvious bona fides, the context feels almost unprecedented and thus easily debatable. In her review of TWO HANDS, Becca Lengel drew the obvious (and correct) comparison to Radiohead when they released KID A and AMNESIAC back-to-back, and I think that naysayers were cynically hesitant to embrace Big Thief as the kind of band that could similarly put out two beautiful, dense, masterful records in such a short time because we’ve been trained, through social media, through the combination of hesitation, anxiety, and weariness that comes along with formulating opinions or decisions now, and through the way we think about music in 2019, that it probably isn’t possible. But it is possible. Big Thief really did have that kind of year, and I urge you to put on U.F.O.F as the sun comes up and TWO HANDS as it goes down and not try and open yourself up to the possibility that this band moved up a level when no one was ready for it.
When I watch Adrianne Lenker, eyes closed, growl “It’s not the hunger revealing,” while her band, constantly feeling the moment, explode with an emphasis of sound that has to be heard to be believed, I can’t help but envy how in the moment they seem. None of this matters to them. This piece I’m writing, whatever takes are being formulated in unnecessary debates on Twitter, comparisons to Radiohead, late night performances, or people earnestly asking just what it all means… It doesn’t matter. They’re wonderfully unaffected by it, blissfully unaware. Quaint or not, 2019 was Big Thief’s year and proof that it’s possible to be an artist of the year and not even know it.