Big Thief always record in rural locations, but for her new record, their singer Adrianne Lenker went even more rustic. When she and the band were pulled off their European tour prematurely as Coronavirus swept the west, she immediately decamped to rural Massachusetts, where she took up residence in a one-room wooden cabin that, in her own words, “felt like the inside of an acoustic guitar.” Given that she’s been so connected to her instrument since she was in her youth, practically living with it as an appendage, it makes sense that, suddenly finding herself enclosed within one, she felt safe enough to write and record her most personal and heartbreaking material yet.
In fact, her need to get these songs out was so urgent that after her initial recording equipment shorted and blew up beyond repair, she was prepared to resign herself to capturing it all on producer Phil Weinrobe’s Walkman. Thankfully, they did manage to source a working 8-track, but the resulting albums, songs and instrumentals, are still disarmingly skeletal; merely Lenker’s voice and guitar with a few basic overdubs. Occasionally you can hear her chair creak, birds chirping outside, or rain pattering down the structure’s delicate wood, adding an atmosphere akin to that of Grouper’s Ruins – and just like Liz Harris on that album, while Lenker was creating songs and instrumentals she was processing the dissolution of a relationship that had stretched and eventually snapped from their extended separation.
The instrumentals portion of the release features two extended pieces, “music for indigo” and “mostly chimes”. These were pieced together from noodling warm-downs she would play on her guitar at the end of each day, with some field recordings mingled in. As lovely as they are, they feel like an addendum, a little background to add to the ambience of the overall release, but it’s hard to imagine digging it out too frequently when there are many other more finessed records of this ilk in existence. Overall, they live in the long shadow cast by the mammoth emotion on display in songs.
Lenker has never feared death or the ending of things, having sung about mortality frequently and seemingly accepting it as just another piece of the beautiful cycle of life; her last solo album, abysskiss, ended with her dreaming of passing away in her lover’s arms. But, when it came to writing and recording this time around, she was several months and many many miles apart from her loved one, “on a whole new level of heartsick… basically lying in the dirt half the time.”
This emotional frailty seems to have decreased the barrier between her own life-force and that of every living, dying and decaying thing around her. She seems keyed-in to existence and in such a rarefied state that simply singing about colours and animals – countless of which crop up across songs – vividly put us in situ in the Massachusetts foothills as she works through her grief. She has found a finer balance between her more abstract images and cutting to the quick, which makes her gentle poetry more impactful than ever.
Early highlight “ingydar” features a series of arresting images – flies sucking on a horse, cherry juice on chins, a “scar like a meteor” – but in amongst them she is explicit: “you are as far from me as a memory,” she laments, soon adding “six years in, no baby.” In the chorus she tries to bury her feelings and look at things matter-of-factly, repeating “everything eats and is eaten,” wrapping up the macabre and heartbreak with one simple bow.
This resilience against the facts of life wavers from song to song, giving us a divine spectrum of her fragile existence at the time of their creation. On the one hand she can feel battered by “wind that laughs like a clown” and hurt by “mystery of lack stabbing stars through my back” on the crushing “forwards beckon rebound”. Then, on “come”, she is gracefully envisioning her end, beckoning “come help me die, my daughter” and steeling herself for the end, repeating “I’m not cold, I’m not cold.” Another highlight, “zombie girl” has her courting the void with the wide-eyed naïveté of a child: “oh, emptiness / tell me ‘bout your nature / maybe I’ve been getting you wrong,” and the birds chirping overhead only add to its status as the album’s most joyous entry.
But there is also the ripeness of still-throbbing love for her to contend with, and it’s in the final three tracks of songs where the membrane between songwriter and broken-hearted woman is at its thinnest, where Lenker renders her deep, soulful ache in the most poignant of ways. “not a lot, just forever” is painful in its title alone, but when coupled with Lenker’s playing and singing lines like “your dearest fantasy is to put a baby in me / I could be a good mother,” while knowing it’s unlikely to come to pass, the result is emotional annihilation.
Where “not a lot, just forever” finds her idealising the life she and her ex could have had, the following “dragon eyes” seems like her recoiling from her desires and accepting that her lover is her own person, someone that she doesn’t want to tame, change or name, ultimately accepting the humblest connection: “I just want a place with you.” Finally, songs winds up on the breathtakingly frail “my angel”, where any pretence of acceptance or moving on has completely dissolved. She imagines herself on the edge of a chasm, stepping out – only to be saved by her heavenly loved one, whom she describes as so vital as to be her oxygen. Then the tape clicks off suddenly, and she’s gone.
It seems unlikely that writing and recording songs and instrumentals allowed Lenker to fully heal her heart, but in among its living, breathing atmosphere are signs of new life and new hope. There is perhaps none clearer than on the torrential “anything”, where she wants nothing but to block out everything around her, repeating “I don’t wanna talk about anything” like an angsty adolescent, diving headlong into her misery by admitting “I wanna kiss kiss your eyes again.” At this point, when she seems completely lost, engulfed by despair, her guitar plucking keeps fluttering onwards with unbridled spirit, and, wrapt by its unceasing vitality, she lets out a little “woo!” It’s a moment that never fails to raise a smile, and the ultimate signal that, even in the deepest well of depression, music still has the power to bring her joy, and within its shelter, she will endure.