The New Big Thief Album Is A Masterpiece

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When Big Thief called their debut album Masterpiece, I assumed it was meant to be ironic. Yes, I thought it was a great record — it was among my favorite albums of 2016. But many of the bands who make my favorite albums wind up slowly fading back to obscurity after briefly bubbling up. It’s the trajectory of 99.9 percent of the artists who are lucky enough to even get noticed in the first place. Surely, this modest, country-leaning indie rock band couldn’t really have such delusions of grandeur.

In the years since then, I’ve come to realize that Big Thief actually did indeed have such delusions. Also: maybe they weren’t delusions after all.

In their own humble way, Big Thief has aspired to greatness more than any other American rock band I can think of from the past decade. From the beginning, what distinguished them was that “intangible feeling that’s conjured when musicians with chemistry assemble in a room and become something greater than the sum of their respective parts,” as I put it upon the release of Masterpiece. It’s a cliche to liken a band to a family or a sports team — most bands are really marriages of convenience — though in the case of Big Thief these analogies don’t go far enough. They are more like a body, in which each part performs a specific task so that the life form can move, breathe, think and feel.

In their publicity photos, the members of Big Thief are always situated close together, to the point where they’re often literally falling over each other, as if they are attempting to physically merge. The body language here speaks volumes. Big Thief emerged during a period of indie rock in which Bandcamp auteurs summoned online followings and then formed bands in order to tour. In contrast, Big Thief represents the most endangered of modern pop anachronisms: A rock band with a real bond.

By the time of their second album, 2017’s Capacity, they had a signature sound. Whereas Masterpiece is more or less a rough and tumble alt-country record, Capacity showed them capable of playing with a quiet, unsettling intensity as singer-songwriter Adrianne Lenker sang intimate art-folk songs in a stage whisper. On stage, however, Big Thief tore those songs open, with Lenker and guitarist Buck Meek suddenly raining down torrents of squalling feedback after lulling the audience with 45 minutes of intimate beguilement, as bassist Max Oleartchik and drummer James Krivchenia somehow held it all together, like scotch tape around a tornado.

By 2019, they were indie stars, though there were also signs of strain. U.F.O.F. and Two Hands contain some of their very best and most beloved songs, but there was also a sense that Big Thief might slip into a formula of austere, mid-tempo and kind of same-y sounding singer-songwriter music. There was also their relentless work schedule of constant touring and prolific recording. Are they working too hard? I wondered. That drive for greatness seemed to be pushing them toward burnout. (Lenker has said that she was briefly hospitalized in 2020, in part, due to exhaustion from seven years of non-stop touring.)

The pandemic forced them to slow down. But it didn’t tamp down their ambition. Before Covid hit, Krivchenia had a genius idea: Let’s travel the country and record many, many songs in several different locations. It was the sort of gambit that conjures other great rock adventures like the Rolling Stones’ Exile On Main St. and Bob Dylan and The Band’s The Basement Tapes, though Big Thief sought to dream up their own creative utopias in four different corners of America, as if attempting to recover an idealized fantasy of what this country could be. As most of us hunkered down in our own private spaces, the members of Big Thief spent five months traveling to the Catskills in upstate New York, the Colorado Rockies, Topanga Canyon in Southern California, and Tucson, Arizona. That they did it during the shutdown in retrospect feels like a metaphor for a band that signifies so many old-world American attributes that now seem lost: kindness, community, adventurousness, empathy, good humor, guilelessness.

They recorded 45 songs in all, 20 of which are included on their staggering new double album, Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You. This may strike some as hyperbole but I don’t care because it’s true: As strong as the other Big Thief albums are, they feel like rough drafts for what they’ve finally achieved here. I’ve had a promo of Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You for a few months, and it already feels like the kind of album that’s destined to be handed down from generation to generation, like Automatic For The People or Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. It’s music I know I will reach for on epic road trips or in the midst of profound grief. An all-timer. A masterpiece. They really did it this time.

Turns out recording in different places with different engineers — Krivchenia is listed as the album’s producer — had real impact on the music. The seething Old Testament sermonizing of “Sparrow” has heavy Catskills vibes. The sweeping country rock of “Red Moon” (featuring excellent fiddle playing by Mat Davidson, among the small handful of non-band members appearing on the album) carries with it the dust of the Arizona desert. The stupendous “Simulation Swarm” is classic ’70s L.A. soft rock with one of the best guitar solos on any Big Thief album. The gorgeous title track evinces the restraint and simplicity endemic to their work with long-time producer Dom Monks on the previous records.

But honestly, every song here is terrific, which is a minor miracle for a band that sought out to (in Meek’s words) “lose our minds a bit.” Of course, I must cop to a personal bias in favor of bands — especially great bands — losing their minds a bit by letting it all hang out. The knock on double albums is that an expansive approach necessitates including songs that normally would have been left off. For those who are impatient with curveballs, experiments, and half-baked flashes of inspiration, this can make double LPs tedious.

In the case of Big Thief, however, this is exactly where Dragon thrives. Nothing is left un-hung out. Let me put it this way: It’s an album in which two different people are credited with playing “icicles” on a track. Though the eccentricities never get in the way of the songwriting, which is so consistently stellar that I will no longer entertain arguments about anyone from her generational cohort topping Lenker in that department. Only on a canvas this grand is she able to show all that she is capable of. The goofy back porch country philosophizing of “Spud Infinity.” The Ren-Faire flute-accented balladry of “No Reason.” The ethereal psychedelia of “Little Things.” The demo-like “Wake Me Up To Drive,” in which Lenker sums up her band’s M.O. over a drum machine and lo-fi indie-pop melody:

Wake me up to drive
Wake me up to drive
Even if I’m tired I don’t wanna miss the ride
Wake me up to drive
Wake me up to drive
Even if I’m tired I don’t wanna miss the ride

But this is not (as parts of U.F.O.F. and Two Hands seemed to be) merely an Adrianne Lenker solo record that the other members of Big Thief happen to play on. So much of the pleasure of listening to Dragon comes from appreciating the subtle and delicate ways in which this band works and plays together, whether it’s the excellent jam that closes “Little Things,” the surprisingly heavy rock groove that subsumes “Flower Of Blood,” or the way Meek’s voice rises to harmonize with Lenker on the chorus of the stunning love song “12000 Lines.”

We’ve all had our souls crushed by the monotony of the past few years. Stay inside. Dread your neighbors. Distrust everything you see. The drumbeat of negativity is deadening. I think that partly explains why this album moves me so much. The joie de vivre on display is invigorating. The prevailing message is: go outside, care about your neighbors, hope for the future, live. Even the songs that reference death look upon it not as an ending but as a reason to cherish life all the more, “like a door to a place we’ve never been before,” as Lenker sings on the gorgeous album-opener “Change.”

Life is hard. Loss is inevitable. You will be hurt. But only on an album this wide-eyed and open-hearted can the flip side also be articulated. On Dragon, Big Thief makes the case that loss and pain are also what make life worth living. Even if I’m tired I don’t wanna miss the ride. What matters in the end is that we are here for each other. I am grateful Big Thief is here for us.