I am possessive and protective over Big Thief. I feel like they are ‘my band’. They came on the road with me, via the cd player in the Beastie, providing a gorgeous, lush, sometimes high energy, sometimes languid, always sympathetic soundtrack to the miles under the rubber and blacktop, and the mountains and lakes that passed by me as I made my way through this gorgeous country. Mary held me, as Lenker sang about the ‘needle that stopped the kicking’ and I did up another couple of oxys and finally fed that strung out need, and sat there amongst her ‘clothes pins on the floor’, as her girlfriend’s Shark Smile slid across the double lines of the freeway and into my heart with desperate dark longing and car crash of lust on the guardrail skimming disasters of a life lived on the edges of cliffs and mountain passes. Big Thief writes music which cradles the troubled soul, numbed by ‘cheap drink dark and violent’ she sang in Mary, as we slid into Fergus Falls, Minnesota, and the white port buzz purchased for a few bucks and my sanity in the little liquor store on what passes as its main street drag.
Lenker is the best Minnesotan artist since Prince, and the pine and the acrid campfire smoke rises from her words and tender guitarwork and fragile cut glass lyrics, that shimmer and shatter, glinting in the grass, hiding on the highway, filling up the fuel tank with gasoline fuel on the fire of pain and survival; of love and life and sex and the ‘piss and beer’ of her Masterpiece, and the eponymous album it headlined. Big Thief know the road. The songs are infused with gas station candy bars, diner steaming coffee cups, guitars played on jetties, songs sung round campfires while the fussier Martin owners wince at every ember that lands on the adirondak spruce tops, unleaded fuel tanks that are always hovering at a quarter tank, seemingly only ten miles after filling them to the brim, class C minivans whose overhead cabins leak water on tired heads, rest stops and potty breaks.
Big Thief don’t just know the road, they are the road, and I suspect that their best songs are written barrelling down those white lines of the freeway, looking out over the mist covered mountains instead of drowning in the fog and coming out with nebulous and whispy offerings that are missing all substance and form. The looping nursery rhyme melody of Sparrow is a case in point. The song goes nowhere at all. There are no discernable chapters, no bridges or breaks: no point to all the shoegazing. It is staring into the mist for the sake of it, and whilst it is nice enough, nice is not enough.
Critter rock, campfire sway, Mazzy Star inspired fabled land of nod, is a worthy goal, but not one Lenker and her band wholly pull off. Whereas Mary has that ‘needle’ and the ‘kicking’, and the ‘clothes pins on the floor’, invoking the camaraderie of drugs and booze and rock and roll, Sparrow comes at the subject of drug abuse of the opiated kind from the other direction. The usual trope of ‘ivy’ and ‘IV’ – intravenous, almost passed me by, so uncertain and restrained Lenker remained until we got to the ‘threading my heart through the needle’ of the end of the first looping verse. By the time she reached ‘threading the blood through the apple’ – the bad knowledge of Eve, her Adam running chasing, telling the secret pain of ‘she has the poison inside her/she talks to snakes and they guide her’, my heart was breaking.
The faintness of the message, the unsatisfying loop of melody that neither goes anywhere nor comes fully to the listener, does not wholly erase the pain and the longing. The junk is in the flowery bower, ‘wrapped in the wings of a sparrow’, and I am right behind her, ‘trapped in the weeds like a scarecrow’ a straw-woman, filled with dust, sucking the ‘juice from the apple’ Lilith-owls haunting I.V dreams that run through the veins and scare the boys witless. We all have our ‘Adam’, us women who are prone to apple biting, ‘burdened with the fiber’ of the cotton we pull the poison through to filter out the bad, stuck in those cotton fever dreams, itching and burning and yearning for release. The ‘bell toll’ Lenker sings of tolls for all of us, calling time. Those ‘beaks’, those ‘needles’ of Sparrow sharp and dangerous as arrows, the ‘snakes that guide her’ running through the water in the spoon, but every time we lay down on it, it is like a knife through the leather of our dreams. Don’t bite the apple, Eve, and expect the blood not to ‘run through’ it, when threading a heart ‘through the needle.’ The ferryman has to be paid in pennies and the ride is never free.
The latest triad of releases from Big Thief, came at me at a time when neither Lenker or I were on the road. My highway travels and her touring temporarily canceled by the pandemic. The tour is back on for Lenker and Big Thief *, even if I have had my wings clipped. So while I am here playing the gratefully paused if not dead, my highway boots temporarily hung up, I wondered what my favorite band of the last ten years had to offer. I was hoping for a dose of nostalgia, a touch of uplifting energetic yelping from Lenker and her seemingly endless engine of songwriting genius. I was only partially satisfied.
The energy and brilliance of UFOF, Masterpiece, Two Hands, Capacity, is just not there. None of the three new releases have that sparkle, that infinite replayability. When I heard Mary, Shark Smile, Masterpiece, even UFOF and Paul, which is not quite in the same league as the triad of greatness, my instinctive reaction was what I am always moved to do when I hear something I adore: pick up the guitar and play them for myself. It is like putting on new clothes, trying out a car with a fast engine and a wheel that feels good in your hands. Some songs just handle well, and Lenker is a mistress of her art and craft. None of these songs inspired me to pick up my guitar and take them for a spin. The new triad is missing this carefree verve and hook. It is missing the same energy.
These songs, like the new age that Dylan sang of in Song For Woody, are dying before they have even been born. They do not yelp and twinkle like the Black Diamonds of her masterful handling of the psychology of obsession and co-dependence. In that song, the refrain of “I could never leave him” screams out as she thrashes her Collings so hard she would make even PJ Harvey blush and beg her not to destroy it. Lenker can thrash, and is better when she does. This new triad doesn’t thrash, it whispers. Even the faint and cutesy lines of the artwork, uncertain and without definition or the self-assured heaviness we are used to from Lenker and Big Thief, are whispering and barely swaying. Everything about the new releases leave me longing for something to release me from this unbearable lightness of touch.
Sometimes songs need not just the memory of the road as it was, they need to be written on the road as it is. The imprint of the highway is not enough when a pandemic is paralyzing and stultifying creative efforts in waves of fear. There is no interaction, no spark when all you have are four walls and a deep longing to break free. Perhaps this is what has been missing from these songs of the days of isolation.
That is not to say that these songs are without merit: certainly, the weakest and faintest of Big Thief’s output is better and more enjoyable than the sum of most of their peers.
Little Things takes us for a Masterpiece-like trip back down the road. Distill freedom and put it in a bottle and through a certain kind of glass darkly you get Little Things like this. The Song has a real flying shoes feeling, a Townes Van Zandt road song minus the hound dog darkness. This is vibrant, running on empty through life with the water pot balanced on your head, whilst not spilling one single drop of water on the ground. There is a polished flourish to this song, and it is this polish that turns me off. It is sparkling in a clean way, overproduced, all the edges knocked off. This is a song of the midday sun blinding your eyes, reflecting off the road remembered but not currently traveled on.
It is ‘feeling a little strung out’ whizzing past the walmarts of the mind, picking the essentials off the shelves but feeling a little nervous of the quality, whilst anchored in the city, in her case, New York, whilst longing for the road. Even her trademark scream feels held back and swallowed down. The panting and the gasping too restrained and drowned out in the mix. Some lyrics are gasped just out of earshot. This song had been wanting to fire the producer and beg Lenker to actually let rip and not just pretend to. Perhaps the song will gain some wings when it gets the chance to be played live.
“I feel like I need attention!” Lenker gasps, and I hear that desperately in this song. It is missing something to bounce off of. Missing a sounding board, an audience to adore, or a partner in musical adventures to feedback and reassure. Lenker is a genius, the closest thing we have right now to a band that means something, says something and does it well. Here is that attention she deserves coming from me to her: Adrienne, please find your feet again! She feels like she has been somehow bowed down under pressure and isolation, the dissonant guitars and the freewheelin’ melody line are not enough to save the song.
Certainty is a fragile thing, it almost wants to melodically be Dreams by Fleetwood Mac, it is almost the same song – different enough for sure to not certainly irritate the lawyers but derivative. The ‘for you I am a child’ theme is The Mac’s Landslide by another name. What we have here is a failure to communicate that has that Basement Tapes innocent charm minus the circus spirit that should attend it. I end up longing for some hustle, some hippy Grateful Dead noodling to dilute the attempt at anthemic relevance and radio-friendly march and thump, that gets those fingers drumming on the steering wheel of life! Is love going to leave us parched and thirsty or else drowned and overwhelmed in rivers “high’ or “low” asks Lenker. I wish I knew. We all need a bit of certainty in our lives, but this uncertain little thing of a song, that is a luxury that is in as short a supply as toilet paper was in 2020.
“For you I am a child!” she declares confidently, with great certainty, and I believe her. Her love might be a ‘maybe’, but she is certain of her wildness, her plains-sleeping future, out there in the wilderness where she belongs. That wilderness can be in the streets of New York. You can find it in the streets of San Francisco. You can find it on the road traveling from gig to gig, from campground to gas station; but it cannot be found in a pandemic that clips the wings of the sparrow and leaves the eternal Eve to the needle peckings of sharp beaks, and the blood that threads through the apple, left there by the needles. The song has the unfinished feel of a love that is not certain. It ends abruptly and left me wanting more. For this reason alone it might be the most enticing song of this new triad.
Forget Eve, Lilith is where it is at, running from the garden of Eden, leaving Adam to his domination and going to find new places to roam. Lenker clearly needs to rediscover her wildness, her mojo, her highway boot ways, to break free and regain her confidence, get that attention she needs and the feedback from her environment and the audience which fuels her genius. Because, make no mistake about tit, Lenker is a genius, even when her wings are temporarily clipped. I am certain she will grow her flight feathers back with an infusion of energy and freedom.
* Big Thief are touring, back on the road, where they belong. I am pleased to see lots of smaller town gigs! Find dates here: https://bigthief.net/tour/