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Adrianne Lenker is a lot of things. The Minnesota native, perhaps best known as the lead singer and songwriter for the Brooklyn-based indie rock group Big Thief, crafts beautiful, poetic lyrics. In Big Thief, they’re usually set to fuzzy guitars and brought to life by Lenker’s voice, alternately gentle and capable of thunderous power. Outside of Big Thief, Lenker leans softer in her solo work, embracing the contemplative aspects of her voice.
Lenker calls her latest solo album Abysskiss a “document” and an “archive.” It’s meant to portray the feelings she had for two straight years on the road with Big Thief, when inspiration stirred and passed in a blur. According to Lenker, her first solo record Hours Were The Birds, was recorded when she “had just turned 21 and moved to New York City where I was sleeping in a warehouse, working in a restaurant and photographing pigeons. Now five years later, another skin is being shed” with Abysskiss.
“Shedding skin” is such a fantastic, apt description of what Abysskiss sounds like, and the album is full of metaphors like this. Comfortable relationships aren’t between two people — Lenker bewitches the subjects into nature. “We could be the riptide, or two mountains growing still,” Lenker sings on “Womb.” Tears drip “like a warm precious spring.” On “Terminal Paradise,” Lenker asks for death, or maybe it’s not death but just a change in corporeal form, another shedding of skin. “Worm / Will you return me / To the robin’s beak? / I’ll be a bird.” The end isn’t something to fear. For Lenker, it’s “terminal paradise.” There’s life in that new skin. “See my death become a trail / And the trail leads to a flower / I will blossom in your sail / Every dreamed and waking hour.”
Lenker sings about her birth, her death, her life as a plant, her frustrations loving herself, and her life as a little boy waiting for his angel. It’s a personal record, but not in the typical way of indie rock or singer songwriters. She’s not narrating the fallout of a past relationship or diving deep into herself to mine these lyrics — it’s more like she’s diving out, becoming something else and imagining the contours outside the human bodily experience.
“Blue And Red Horses” is a standout on Abysskiss. It’s the kind of song you can lose yourself in, the repetitive line of the spare guitar accompanying your interpretation of the lyrics. The simple melody reminds me a little of Big Star’s “Thirteen,” deceptively simple in a song rich with the beauty and heartache of childhood. Lenker sings about small things — little red lanterns, flowers, and forests growing imaginatively in a bedroom as the subject awaits the arrival of an angel. “I’m a lot of boy with a lot of nerve / Do you want to toy with me?,” Lenker sings, a confident taunt.
The album’s arrangements are quiet, but not spare. Songs like “Womb” and “From” become more intricate the more you listen to them, blooming with subtle instrumentation and unexpected arrangements. Most of the album is acoustic, but “Out Of Your Mind” features some Big Thief-esque fuzzy guitars. Lenker is singing to someone, herself perhaps, begging them to get out of their head and listen to the love that’s all around them. My heart is a wagon / But I can’t push her desire / Is it any wonder I get lonesome for you?,” Lenker sings, playing with pronouns and point of view. She’s the subject, the narrator, and the observer. She’s the lover, the loved, and the love itself.
While “Out of Your Head” is the song that would sound most at home on a Big Thief album, the songs are all excellent counterparts to the band’s discography. Lenker’s voice is a chameleon, adapting to whatever environment it’s in — steel in Big Thief’s electric rockers, cashmere on the gentler Abysskiss songs. Lenker performed “Terminal Paradise” at Austin City Limits Music Festival last Friday (the Abysskiss release date) and her bandmates left the stage for a song so she could play solo. It was obvious that most of the crowd didn’t know the song — not any fault of theirs, since the album did only drop hours before. But Lenker enraptured us with her voice, making us forget about the blistering hot sun as we imagined flowers blooming in trails and beauty in darkness.
Watching her perform, both alone and with the band, I was reminded of Lenker’s quote about her process writing the album. Abysskiss is an archive of the last few years, the thoughts percolating in her head during Big Thief’s two-year tour, the people she has become in the years since her first solo record. It’s meant to exist alongside Big Thief, to showcase Lenker’s multiplicity as a performer, songwriter, and human being.
Abysskiss is out now via Saddle Creek. Get it here.