When Big Thief pick up their instruments, they like to face inward, standing in a circle. That is how they rehearse, and how they have recorded all of their albums: eye to eye and practically elbow to elbow. Even when they perform, they face each other as much as possible. Much has been said of Big Thief as a family, an organism, a self-sustaining ecosystem. But what happens when the circle narrows to a single point? On the two-part songs and instrumentals—billed as a pair of standalone albums but really two inextricable parts of a whole—Adrianne Lenker, the group’s singer and emotional fulcrum, stands alone, a solitary figure learning to shoulder a burden of fresh absence. Here, inside a “circle of pine and red oak/Circle of moss and fire smoke,” she strips her music down to just an acoustic guitar and voice with minimal overdubs, all recorded straight to tape. She wrote nine of the first half’s 11 songs right there on the spot. The second half is purely instrumental; the final side is mostly windchimes.
Lenker made the record in a one-room cabin in the woods of Western Massachusetts where she holed up in spring, waiting out the early days of the pandemic and reeling from a broken heart. The simple pinewood planks of the shack’s interior reminded her, she said, of “the inside of an acoustic guitar,” which is to say it felt like home. Her friend Philip Weinrobe, a recording engineer, was summoned with a truckload of gear: half-inch tape machines, XLR cables, a binaural mic. They spent a couple weeks setting up and another three weeks recording, and the sense of presence they captured—in two cases, recording directly to Weinrobe’s Walkman—is almost overwhelming. The guitar sounds so close that you can hear the ridges of Lenker’s fingertips rubbing against coiled steel. Occasionally, her chair creaks or her foot brushes against the floor. Some songs wear a halo of birdsong or rainfall. Fragments from the sessions—orphaned chords strummed in the silence before a take begins, the thunk of what might be fingers pressing down on the keys of the tape machine—litter the final mixdown like leaves strewn across the cabin floor.
Given its modest origins, this album could have been just a detour. (“I really admire Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Leonard Cohen—how they have such a breadth of material throughout the years, into old age,” Lenker told The Ringer last year. “They seemed to follow their own thread of curiosity and creativity, even through some weird phases when people were like, ‘I don’t know what they’re doing.’”) Instead, it sounds like the essence of her music distilled, steeped in grief. In addition to the pain of Lenker’s own breakup, Weinrobe’s grandmother was dying; he was saying his farewells to her over Zoom. Big Thief’s tour had been cut short by the pandemic. And no matter how far you went into the woods, there was no ignoring the ambient ache in the nation’s bones, all that death and neglect and malevolence. Colored by all these overlapping shades of pain, songs and instrumentals are about leave-taking, solitude, and self-reliance; about memory, longing, and regret; about the “mystery of lack.” None of these are new themes for Lenker, but she has never explored them quite like this.
Where Two Hands looked outward, songs tends to dwell in the space between Lenker and her absent lover. She begins the album with a plea: “Lay me down so to let you leave/Tell me lies/Wanna see your eyes/Is it a crime to say I still need you?” This naked second-person form of address is all over these songs, like “I’m not afraid of you now” and “You are changing me/You are changing.” They sound like private thoughts tested on the tongue, the sorts of solitary ruminations shared with the four walls of an empty space—the room tone of loss. It is an invitation to move through pain, to disappear into sound alongside her.
Some of these songs are as lovely as any Lenker has ever written: lush and verdant, chords fanning out like ferns, their major-key tonalities at odds with the heartbreak at the album’s core. On “anything,” she trades the cosmic sweep of U.F.O.F. for the microscopic detail of a moment of stillness: “I wanna listen to the sound of you blinking.” The wounds of her breakup are still raw, peppered with the buckshot of memory. She sketches the arc of a doomed affair in a series of disconnected images: wet skin and dripping mango, a Christmas Eve argument, dog’s teeth biting through flesh, “unchecked calls and messages.” But the chorus is sweet and unburdened, and toward the song’s end, Lenker lets out a soft little “Whoo!” as though carried away by the music. It’s a remarkable moment: In the midst of an unshakable sadness, the beauty of this thing she has created elicits a whoop of joy, a tiny fist pump of affirmation. Solace arrives in the form of a momentary adrenaline rush.
Lenker’s writing has never been as vivid as it is here. In “ingydar,” she sings of a horse lying naked in the barn while flies “draw sugar from its head,” her voice tumbling over itself in a rush of sticky-sweet detail. It is an image of decrepitude so richly rendered that, rather than suggesting decay, the impression is one of extraordinary fullness, like a meadow exploding into bloom:
His eyes are blueberries, video screens,
Minneapolis schemes and the dried flowers
From books half-read
The juice of dark cherries cover his chin
The dog walks in and the crow lies in his
Jaw like lead
Everything eats and is eaten
Time is fed
Throughout songs, life and death are locked in an embrace, as opposites collide and subsume one another. Violence is never far from the life force. Several times she sings, ambiguously, of motherhood. Her partner’s “dearest fantasy/Is to grow a baby in me.” Yet in “ingydar,” as she picks her way carefully over the bright-red carcass of memory, she pauses and sighs, “Six years in, no baby.”
In the almost unbearably beautiful “not a lot, just forever,” she sings, “I want to be your wife/So I hold you to my knife,” her voice growing thin like the air leaving a body. Her voice becomes even more diaphanous in “half return,” which seems to be a story about revisiting her childhood home. Images drift across the listener’s vision, unmoored from their origins, until she arrives at the chorus: “Standing in the yard/Dressed like a kid/The house is white and/The lawn is dead the lawn is dead the lawn is dead.” The sing-song melody and repeated words sound almost like a playground chant; the way she sings, “The lawn is dead”—her voice multiplied on the tape, harmonies rippling like cirrus clouds above the broad, flat Midwestern landscape—it sounds almost ecstatic.
Unlike the A-side, the B-side is devoid of overdubs, giving the songs a more intimate, stripped-down character. The crux of the record, “zombie girl,” begins as she awakens from a dream about her absent lover, but it turns into a conversation with absence itself. “Oh emptiness/Tell me ’bout your nature/Maybe I’ve been getting you wrong.” Her guitar sounds almost like a music box, and the recording is wreathed in chirps and chiming metal. “What’s on your mind?” she asks, repeatedly, and you can hear her gasp for air between the lines; the longer she holds each note, it is as though she were emptying out, becoming emptiness. As her voice trails off, a buzzing fly enters the frame, and the ambient sound swells to fill what is left. It is a song about emptiness but also fullness, about the way the self can disappear into what surrounds it.
Lenker began and ended each day’s session with an extended improvisation on her guitar. A collage of these recordings comprises instrumentals’ two songs, “music for indigo” and “mostly chimes,” which together run more than 37 minutes. They are not showy pieces, but the depth of her relationship with her instrument is clear. Channeling folk and bluegrass, she mulls over series of notes, sounding out melodic ideas, nudging forward and then doubling back; it feels less like composing than dowsing, like she is responding to the smallest variations of the weight of the wood in her hands. “She gives a lot of significance to that moment where she’s holding her guitar,” Big Thief’s Max Oleartchik told the New Yorker. “I never really think of her, like, fucking around and playing riffs or something. It’s always this instrument of witchcraft. It’s always holy.” That glimmer of something sacred shines through here: Set against the sounds of nature, her playing has a devotional quality. Toward the end of “music for indigo”—composed, she says, as something for her ex-girlfriend to fall asleep to—she murmurs, “I’m starting over,” and it is unclear whether she is talking about the song, or her life.
If “music for indigo” is spacious, “mostly chimes” is mostly just space. It begins with tentative playing, but after four minutes, her guitar gets quieter and quieter, and then drops off to silence. What is left is just the swirl of chimes and birdsong, 11 minutes of pure dreamspeak. That might seem inadvisably precious or indulgent, but Lenker’s atmospheric coda has a purpose: It completes the process of disappearing that has taken place across the course of the record. On side A, there may be as many as three guitar parts, plus overdubbed vocals, in play at any moment. Side B loses the overdubs but retains the vocals. Side C is just guitar and chimes. Side D, on the other hand, is just a suggestion of what will be left when Lenker packs up and leaves. It is the wind in the trees, the sun through the branches, the robin’s egg lying cracked and hollow on the ground, a half-moon of sky blue nestled against black loam. The barely-there conclusion of this remarkable pair of records is a memory frozen in tone, absence given form. “Oh, emptiness/Tell me ’bout your nature,” Lenker asks in “zombie girl.” Taken together, songs and instrumentals provide an answer.