Big Thief’s ‘wild, weaving’ storybook of an album finds the wonder in the weird
‘It’s a little bit magic,’ promises ‘Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You’, the title track of American indie folk-rock band Big Thief’s latest album. At 80 minutes long, this mammoth record was born out of drummer and producer James Krivchenia’s desire of capturing the full range of vocalist Adrianne Lenker’s song-writing talent in one project. And the result, though lengthy and diffuse, is more than a little bit magic.
Much like its enigmatic if ungainly title, Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You is captivatingly surreal, balancing awkwardly between the nonsensical and the profound. It’s all there in the album cover, a faint pencil sketch of an unlikely assortment of animals sitting round a campfire: the sweet, childish simplicity, the rustic imperfection and a hint of the fantastical.
Lenker’s distinctive voice can drawl like an aged folk singer’s or quiver like a child’s, making a song like ‘Change’, the album’s tender opening track, feel at once innocently vulnerable and as ancient as the Earth.
But innocence and optimism are fragile throughout the meandering track list, quaking under the weight of tragedy and heartbreak. The sweet, lilting ‘No Reason’ tells us ‘there is no reason to believe, no reason at all,’ whereas on the equally beautiful ‘Certainty’, Lenker confesses, ‘my certainty is wild, weaving. / For you I am a child, believing.’
The songwriter’s faith in the world around her, however, is unwavering. Her voice a wisp of smoke against the shimmering haze of the title track, she vows:
When the topsoil
Is kicking up into the storm,
Where the dust goes dancing
And a billion planets are born,
I believe in you.
This fascination with the strangeness and beauty of life is probably the closest thing to a running theme across the record. ‘What if all the worlds in space /
would melt into one single place, / and intertwine the human race / with other kinds?’ questions ‘The Only Place’. Trees, the wind, frogs and fire-smoke are observed in poetic detail on ‘Promise is a Pendulum’, while ‘Spud Infinity’ asks the listener to make peace with ‘the alien you’ve rejected in your own heart.’
A joyous, bounding jam, the track is brought to life by Mat Davidson’s energetic fiddle and a cartoonish springing noise, as well as Lenker’s lyrics, which mingle the childish with the philosophical until they are indistinguishable:
Kiss your body up and down, other than your elbows,
‘Cause as for your elbows they’re on their own,
Wandering like a rolling stone,
Rubbing up against the edges of experience.
Each track brings its own surprises: ‘Time Escaping’ follows the peaceful lull of ‘Change’ with an abrupt, clattering jumble of sound and an off-kilter rhythm. ‘Flower of Blood’ is a swimming, psychedelic tangle of distortion, while Buck Meek’s guitar lumbers, boisterous and clumsy, through ‘Love Love Love’.
‘Little Things’ is one of the album’s more rugged and rambling tracks, but every haphazard note, every word, bouncing off the restless rhythm, feels so spontaneous, joyous and alive. On the more sombre end of the spectrum, the accordion-backed ‘Wake Me Up to Drive’ glows, warm and content, like a sleepy night ride home, but feels distant, out of reach, as if faded by the nostalgic haze of memory or dreams.
The diversity of the track list makes the album’s length just about forgivable. It’s long in the way the Beatles’ white album is long: to remove the constraints of cohesion and neatness in favour of free experimentation. While not every cut is a winner, (I find myself struggling to wade through the tedium of ‘Sparrow’ for instance), there’s no feeling of tarnished perfection or precious time on the record wasted, rather a sense of expanded possibilities.
And this feeling of freedom and random spontaneity is right at the heart of Big Thief’s endearing chaos. ‘One peculiar organism aren’t we all together?’ Lenker muses on ‘Spud Infinity’, encapsulating all the wonderful unlikeliness of the universe in a line. And I’m reminded of words once sung by another idiosyncratic lo-fi indie group, Neutral Milk Hotel: ‘Can’t believe… how strange it is to be anything at all.’