Kindness is Big Thief's defining trait.
On "Forgotten Eyes," a single from Two Hands—the Brooklyn quartet's masterful second album this year—Adrianne Lenker sings, "The wound has no direction / Everybody needs a home and deserves protection." That line is a de facto mission statement for the band's entire catalog, which has consistently explored the humanity and resilience that comes from unequivocal pain. They make songs that radiate warmth, thanks to Lenker's searching and incisive songwriting. Her inviting voice, which often quivers under the sheer emotional weight of her lyrics, serves as a comforting reminder that it's OK to feel and process.
Since the band's formation, Big Thief have been in perpetual motion. Two Hands is their fourth album, not counting Lenker's and guitarist Buck Meek's respective 2018 solo albums abysskiss and Buck Meek. Their prolific songwriting is impressive in a vacuum, but even more so considering that they've spent the majority of time since their 2016 debut Masterpiece touring almost nonstop. In one interview, bassist Max Oleartchik guessed that they "played upwards of 700 shows, planning up to 10 months of touring at a time." That's a grueling schedule for any band, but it's only made Big Thief stronger. “Everyone has their ego pretty much removed,” Lenker adds in the same interview. These are four people whose bond has transcended the disorienting, lonely, and exhausting nature of life on the road.
This spring's excellent U.F.O.F. showcased the band's obvious chemistry with one another. Recorded last summer at Bear Creek Studios in rural western Washington, the LP's knotty and intricate folk rock songs have a magic that can only come from a band that's unequivocally in tune with one another. Most of its tracklist comes from totally live takes, with standout single "Cattails" recorded during the band's first rehearsal of the song ever. It's Big Thief's best album, and a sure year-end list contender.
But just five days after the band wrapped up the studio time for U.F.O.F., they decamped to Sonic Ranch in the small town of Tornillo, Texas to record Two Hands, riding the spark-plug momentum of their earlier recording sessions and managing to come up with another release that's equally impressive. Although the material for both U.F.O.F. and Two Hands comes from the same pool of 50 tracks Lenker wrote since 2017's Capacity one time period, these two albums couldn't be more different in tone and emotional palate. The press materials for Two Hands claim that where U.F.O.F is "the celestial twin" of their dual albums, Two Hands is "the earth twin." The former's arrangements feel weightless and restrained, with Lenker singing of things that feel of cosmic importance: alien visitors, contemplating the unknown, and grasping the smallness of existence. The latter, however, has a strong physicality thanks to both its visceral instrumentation and Lenker's more direct lyrics. As Lenker explains the distinction to Stereogum, " Two Hands is more the micro [album], zooming into the blood and tissue and guts of being a human, the raw, bare, naked bones." She adds, "[there's] not much layering, capturing just our performances in the room, just very dry, no reverbs, just skin and flesh and human, finite, physical."
The sprawling six-minute single "Not," which has been in the band's live repertoire for years, exudes that intensity. Here, Lenker sings lines like, "It's not the open weaving / Nor the furnace glow / Nor the blood of you bleeding / As you try to let go." Her repetitive, mesmerizing words swirl over muscular, distorted guitars. It's the kind of song that broadcasts everything that makes Big Thief great, like Lenker's burdened and defiant delivery and the way the band coalesces around each other for overwhelming indie rock catharsis. Few recorded musical moments this year have captured the fire of an artist's live performances quite like the ripping guitar solo on this track. Elsewhere, the jagged opening riff of highlight "Shoulders" is equally impressive, catapulting the song into Lenker's unsettling call to action: "Please wake up."
Big Thief have always gone to great lengths to make their albums single fully formed and self-contained works. In 2017, Lenker told NPR, "I really love crafting albums and thinking of albums as a whole, not just individual songs or singles or just tracks, but a whole entire album. It's very exciting, to me and to the whole band. We'll just talk for hours about it in the van." Advanced press copies of Two Hands weren't divided by track name, but by "Side A" and "Side B." And there's clear balance throughout the whole of Two Hands, from the subdued and hurt quietude of opener "Rock and Sing" to the propulsive amble of the following track "Forgotten Eyes," these songs flow as if they're in conversation with each other: a living, nebulous collection.
For all of Big Thief's improvements from album to album, it's the band's tenacity that's most inspiring. With their exhaustive touring schedule, it's not just commendable that they've managed to stay consistent, releasing two of the year's best albums in U.F.O.F. and Two Hands; it's also impressive that they've gotten better doing it.
Lenker, too, has proven that she's one of the most essential songwriters working right now. She can sing menacingly about violence on "The Toy" ("The toy in my hand is real" can only conjure an image of a weapon) and compassionately on title track "Two Hands" ("Somehow we exist / in the folds, and I will kiss / both hands, the mystery before us").
This empathy and tenderness feels not just essential in 2019, but radical.