If you haven’t caught wind of Big Thief, it certainly isn’t because music journalists aren’t trying. Since the relatively humble release of their debut album, “Masterpiece,” music publications large and small have proven less and less capable of keeping Big Thief’s name out of their mouths. We’re four albums in and all we’ve heard are good things, so far.
The ample coverage and acclaim they’ve received is owed mostly to the prolific output that keeps them buzzing, with four albums released since 2016 and two this year alone. Their latest offering, “Two Hands,” is what frontwoman Adrianne Lenker describes as the “Earth twin” to the celestial and lofty “U.F.O.F,” released this past February. The albums, which they recorded in succession at the same studio in Texas, display dramatic dynamic contrasts while sounding kindred in spirit at their core.
In part, that spirit — and indeed, much of Big Thief’s proprietary sound — can be attributed to Lenker’s subtle but gut-wrenching vocal delivery. Her lithe crooning floats above the instrumentals, at times breezy and at times a howl. The group’s backbone, however, is their penchant for guitar-driven detours and percussive choices that think just far enough outside the box to sound pleasantly unfamiliar. Lenker and co. will give you something to hold onto as you ease into a song before shifting gears and keeping you off-balance. Traditional elements are bent out of shape for the sake of a glimpse of uncharted territory. What they accomplish is mood and tone alchemy.
These qualities have never been truer than they are on “Two Hands.” Neither have they been so deftly articulated. Moreover, Lenker’s gentlest moments have never sounded so tender, nor so desperate her moments where emotions are laid bare. Between herself and fellow guitarist Buck Meek, their signature arpeggios and jangling half-distorted guitar chords have been brought further down to earth than ever before.
Like any other band with its roots in folk, the experience of listening to Big Thief depends primarily on whether the lyrics resonate with the listener. However, despite the wide appeal of the band, Adrianne Lenker’s lyrics are not immediately as accessible as many of her indie-rock counterparts. She writes sparsely on this record, sometimes disregarding traditional song structure for mantras such as those on the leading single, “Not,” which lacks any semblance of a chorus to ground it. Though this at times works to muddle the personality of a track, it also allows the listener to piece together an interpretation.
While Lenker’s vocals are mostly consistent throughout the album, her lyrics offer a more comprehensive array of emotions than her singing. From the launchpad of the lullaby-like “Rock and Sing,” Lenker croons in an allegory about the United States gun crisis on “The Toy” and later about police abuse on “Shoulders.” Neither song explicitly states as much, but the face value of the lyrics is often just as unsettling. Take the line: “Your head was doubled over / And the blood of the man / Who’s killing our mother with his hands / Is in me, it’s in me, in my veins” from “Shoulders.” In comparison to past lyrical ventures, passages such as this cut deeper.
Big Thief shows their heart of grunge to be as prevalent as ever in its harder-rocking tracks, balanced evenly with the soft, collected hand of the band’s calmer ballads. The guitar is the spotlight of their arrangements, as is par for the course by now. How that manifests is taken in one of two directions on any given track. Several songs feature the dancing, woodsy arpeggiations that the band is known to place over shaken or handmade percussive rhythms and minimal bass guitar. On the other hand, there are a number of tracks built on gained-up guitar chords and slanted, unorthodox lead playing that feels sudden, jolted and spiritual. Fittingly, the title track features a marriage of both, with bouncing guitar lines and an odd, flute-like solo sandwiched between falsetto vocals. Whichever course it takes, the band sounds agile and gritty.
These elements fit evenly over one another, creating a sound that feels at once intensely personal and intriguingly exploratory. This record may be a companion piece to this year’s earlier release, but despite its sometimes cryptic message, in many ways it outshines its twin. I give it an A-.