Album Review: Adrianne Lenker – Bright Future

[4AD; 2024]

In an interview I conducted recently with singer-songwriter Jess Williamson, we briefly talked about the brilliance of Adrianne Lenker. Known mostly for her main band, Big Thief, Lenker has made a big name for herself in the indie scene, as a singer and guitarist, sure, but also as a songwriter of immense strength. Her lyrics are often a little fragmentary, a little illusory, full of surprising figurative language and turns of phrase that catch you off guard, before shocking you with a blunt admission. They’re never overly heady or obtuse — the emotional truths are usually clear, and are quite often liable to knock the wind out from under you.

I mentioned to Williamson that, while I am a big Big Thief fan, I’m an even bigger Adrianne Lenker fan. “I know what you mean,” Williamson said. And I think it’s because there’s something about getting a glimpse of Lenker, perfectly distilled and nakedly upfront, that really shows what she’s capable of as a performer and as a songwriter.

Lenker’s last solo album, songs, was full of rickety and spare tunes about memory, family, loss, heartache, curiosity. They were dusty gems, cloaked in webs and a soft fuzz. Her newest one, Bright Future, is also her first since the band’s huge 2022 album Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You brought them even more success and audience, finishing in a Grammy nomination for Best Alternative Album. It feels like the band is bigger than ever, and now in the aftermath of that mammoth moment, Lenker is putting out her sixth solo record. And with the light on her beaming more brightly than it probably ever has, Lenker is giving us another set of emotionally astute and moving songs, small and epic at once.

Most of the album feels a little more robust — or at least more clearly recorded — than songs or its wonderful predecessor abysskiss, but Bright Future does kick off with a huge gambit. “Real House” is a six-minute piano ballad, with a meandering melody and no real chorus or refrain to speak of. It sees Lenker mostly writing about the past and her childhood, especially her mother, and her dog who passed away. That last event is, according to the song, the first time she sees her mother cry, and the moment is rendered in a scene of such heartbreaking lyrical simplicity that it threatens to overwhelm anything that comes after it. The song is a little like if Phil Elverum wrote a piece about his mother and his dead dog — even down to some melodic choices — and it’s about as sad as that sounds. It’s also arguably the best solo song she’s ever made.

Luckily, despite this risky (but successful) opener, the rest of Bright Future unfolds in a more sustainable and digestible way.

Of course, that isn’t to suggest that the writing gets less poetic or moving throughout; Lenker maintains her knack for beautiful, winding lyricism, dotted with odd imagery and instantly-memorable phrasing. “Sadness as a Gift” is one of the fullest-sounding solo songs Lenker has put out in a long time, and it’s appropriately catchy and fulfilling, while still continuing her skill of writing sad songs that don’t feel like bummers. “We could see the sadness as a gift and still / Feel too heavy to hold” she sings, later remarking on the shortness of seasons, lamenting the temporariness of, well, everything.

Several of these songs began life (at least publicly) on stage as Big Thief numbers, sometimes performed by Lenker alone. Perhaps the most notable example of this is “Vampire Empire”, a fan favorite that the band finally put out a studio version of last year. It was a fantastic version, though it did receive some light backlash from fans who found the slight lyrical alterations to be downright egregious. On Bright Future, Lenker provides a new solo take on “Vampire Empire”. She returns the excised lyrics, and adds almost a minute to it; despite this, it feels even more urgent and chaotic than the full band version. It’s a peek behind the curtain; one can imagine, after hearing this song and many others here, that this is how many of their favorite Big Thief songs started.

Overall, Bright Future has some of Lenker’s most magnetic lyrics and melodies yet, a stealthy mix of poetic phrasing and forthright observations.  “Cell Phone Says” — perhaps the sparest and simplest song here, at least in terms of structure, musicality, and performance — finds her on the staticky end of a poor signal phone call, perhaps receiving some bad news or just attempting to maintain connection despite being half a world away. On “Free Treasure”, we get a glimpse of domestic bliss: “You’re cooking dinner / It’s gettin’ around half past ten / I haven’t smelled food so good since I don’t know / Where and I don’t know whеn”, she sings, with the utmost sweetness. And on “Donut Seam”, Lenker threads lines between matters of the heart (“You came in like some good things do / Out of nowhere, dream come true / And showed me things I never knew”) and environmental woe (“This whole world is dying / Don’t it seem like a good time for swimming / Before all the water disappears?”). 

The simpler lines, like “Don’t know what I’d do without you” from “No Machine”, might not be as evocative as her more pointed and prosaic moments, but that’s usually why they succeed more often than thud. After some imagery, simile, and metaphor, Lenker knows exactly when to drop pretense and go in for a brusque blow. And then you have a line like “You have my heart / I want it back” on the almost free-associative “Evol” that sounds simple on paper, but comes off as anything but when uttered by Lenker amidst some spiraling piano. 

That song does include some of Lenker’s only suspect or clunky lyricism on the album; she starts off by describing what certain words are backwards, before quickly loosening her read on that concept and pronouncing certain words as the “backward” version of other words that really aren’t, like “teach” and “cheat”. The song trails off into a bit of maelstrom of verbiage, but the Grouper-esque piano-and-room-tone vibe, along with Lenker’s high, thin voice do enough heavy lifting to land the song. It’s a rare moment of going a little too far down her own rabbit hole, but it still casts a hypnotic, eerie spell not unlike something Lisa Germano might conjure.

The piano returns to close the album out, anchoring the ambient haze of “Ruined”, which has one of the album’s most straightforward choruses. “You come around, I’m ruined!” she pleads, with a strange emphasis on the second syllable of that eponymous word. The song is dreamier and spacier than anything else on the record, so perhaps it needed to be the closer by virtue of not fitting in anywhere else, but it does come off a little out of sync with the record. Still, it’s a softly powerful, moving moment to end things on.

Adrianne Lenker is a writer of immaculate exactitude and economy, and Bright Future is just the latest example of that. Filled to the brim with pathos and lived-in melancholy, she has crafted yet another jewel for her ever-expanding crown. It might not be quite as cohesive as songs was, but it benefits from being more varied, and from having some of her most affecting vocal performances. If Big Thief chooses to record studio versions of any of these songs down the line, I’m sure they’ll be handled with acuity and fidelity, but here they are in their primal versions — a gift we can all be thankful for.