Album Review: Big Thief – Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You

[4AD; 2022]

Aside from the fact that it has 20 tracks, nothing about Big Thief’s Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You screams double album. There’s no show-stopping intro nor finale, no grandiose structure, no over-arching concept, no evident strain to make a ‘statement’ record – I’m not even sure whether the band themselves have referred to it as a double album or if it’s just something we’ve applied to it by default. 

This is just another 20 tracks that this brilliant band recorded over the course of four sessions in the space of a few months, grouped together and released. This natural ease has been a core facet of Big Thief’s appeal since they emerged; their music never sounds belaboured or particularly complex (even when it is). Their songs are always welcoming, politely asking you to open yourself to them, like a warm fire that you plop down in front of, its warmth prompting you to get in touch with yourself or maybe even your former lives. It’s the reason why you can listen to the full 81 minutes of DNWMIBIY and not feel the slightest bit taxed – you’ll more likely feel enlivened. 

That’s not to say that their songs are disposable or trivial. The recurrent themes on the record are grounded in grisly heartbreak to forbidden love, but also extend to to sci-fi, death, rebirth, religion and relativity, though Big Thief and their inimitable lyricist Adrianne Lenker make these weighty topics eminently accessible. Take, for example, “Spud Infinity”, a straight-up barn dance that manages to put forth a case for universal consciousness all while bouncing along to a cartoonish jaw harp played by the singer’s younger brother Noah.

This lightly psychedelic sheen is teased out across DNWMIBIY, as Lenker transfigures, transforms and travels through time. On “Sparrow”, she takes us back to a vibrantly alive vision of the Garden of Eden, singing sweetly about Eve eating the forbidden apple, before her voice doubles in delectable horror as Adam cries out at the transgression: “she has the poison inside her / she talks to snakes and they guide her”. Eleven tracks later on “Simulation Swarm” she jumps us into the future with head-spinningly knotty poetry about online wars and virtual intimacy. In between and all around these songs, the possibilities are limitless.

Just as impressive as Lenker’s lyrical scope is the versatility and adaptability of her bandmates’ playing. While entirely produced by drummer James Krivchenia, the four different sessions that make up DNWMIBIY each had a different engineer and took place in four geologically diverse surroundings, from leafy upstate New York to verdant Topanga Canyon, California to the rugged Colorado Rockies to the desert city of Tucson, Arizona where they were joined by fiddle player Mat Davidson. These resulted in distinct sonic traits, and you can happily spend time drawing lines between which songs came from which location, but the album is purposefully shuffled. It’s presented like a homemade quilt of ideas stitched lovingly together, each part of the patchwork unique yet integral to the whole. It keeps the experience of listening through the record intriguing, never knowing quite what approach you’ll hear next.

Along the way, Big Thief show off a variety of augmentations to their already uncontainable sound, while also entering entirely new areas. “Little Things” and “Flower of Blood” explode their rockier side into abstract, shifting sounds. On these songs, Krivchenia’s drums puncture through Lenker’s blurred vocals and Buck Meek’s dreamily textured guitar to create a folk-shoegaze aesthetic. Also from this session is “Time Escaping”, where treated acoustic guitars twang and weave around Krivchenia’s stutter stomp while Lenker extrapolates on the mystery of entropy – it’s alien from anything they’ve done before, but is still unmistakably Big Thief.

More overt use of electronics also sends them down some new trails. On “Heavy Bend”, an acoustic guitar flutter is looped into a folktronica backing, while “Wake Me Up To Drive” gallops forward on programmed drums and waves of Davidson’s accordion that accentuate Lenker’s dazed state as she road trips through the night. Then there’s “Blurred View”, where Lenker reiterates her unhealthy devotion to someone, sounding more desperately hollowed-out than ever as her monotonal singing is complemented by icy washes of synth, crunching drum patter and Max Oleartchik’s looming blots of bass.

The obsessive nature of love is Lenker’s most recurrent muse, but her approaches are never anything less than original, and Big Thief’s dexterity ensures no two sound the same. Among the more straightforward is “Certainty”, where Lenker extrapolates on the giddying excitement of a budding passion, a feeling that’s accentuated by the fact that the band knew they had to capture it the moment it was written – even though the studio was experiencing an extended a power out. Fortunately, engineer Sam Evian had the bright idea to power a four-track tape recorder through his minivan, Oleartchik played his bass through a bluetooth speaker, and a special moment in time was preserved for everyone, fully immersive despite its lo-fi sound.

At a sonic polarity to that is “No Reason”, which is blessed by a divine flute performance from Carole King collaborator Richard Hardy and finds the singer revolving around the difficulties of a long-distance relationship. Rather than lull into self-pity, she emphasises the brief moments when the lovers can “come together / like a feeling, like a flash,” joy radiating from the gang vocals provided by Meek, Krivchenia and Noah Lenker. Another romance-fueled fantasy is the weightless “12,000 Lines”, Lenker taking us back in time to a forbidden love between two women, where encoded messages are passed in books, the tension of the situation leaving Lenker “some nights barely breathing at all / waiting for my woman to call”. 

Another potent song of devotion, “The Only Place” leaves Lenker alone on the guitar, fingerpicking her way through a thought storm about worlds melting, material scattering into nothingness – but affirming “the only place that matters is by your side”. This shows another facet to Big Thief’s brilliance: knowing when to show restraint and leave Lenker alone to conjure, as they also do on the slow-blossoming beauty “Promise is a Pendulum”.

Best of all is the title track, a highlight among an album of endless highlights. “Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You” again seems like a love song, but could equally be a paean to the band itself – after all, Oleartchik has said playing in Big Thief is like steering a dragon. In the song, Lenker compares the purity of the moment to the spellbinding perfection of nature, singing of “a river of morning geese” as the band fall into gliding formation, billows of acoustic guitar and brush stick drumming skating across the sound of literal icicles crackling. “It’s a little bit of magic,” Lenker repeats at the end – there really is no other way to describe it. 

It’s a word she’s used before: “One of the things that bonds us together as a band is pure magic,” she said when the album was announced. “I think we all have the same guide and none of us have ever spoken what it is because we couldn’t name it, but somehow, we are all going for the same thing and when we hit it… we all know it’s it.”

It’s comforting to know that Big Thief themselves don’t quite know how they keep doing it, they’ll chalk it up to spiritual forces and not dwell on it for too long, in case it breaks the spell. Perhaps that’s why they keep restlessly moving on, ever-creating and topping themselves. It’ll be hard to outdo this 20-track masterpiece, but at this point it’s impossible to bet against them.