Big Thief return to form, Earth on ‘Two Hands’
Matthew Kellenberg | Thursday, October 17, 2019
Fans of indie rock band Big Thief were surprised last July to receive unmarked, unannounced packages at their doors. Those fans had purchased vinyl copies of the group’s third album, “U.F.O.F.,” back in May, but these new packages contained something different: a two-song record, etched only with the date 10/11/19.
The first song on the mysterious record sounds like a companion piece to the “U.F.O.F.” title track. “UFOF,” short for “Unidentified Flying Object Friend,” pairs its ethereal, ephemeral imagery with the undulating rhythm of a finger-picked guitar. In response, the unnamed Track 1 employs similar instrumentation as it builds upon the theme of loss: “New friends, you can make some too / I know.”
On the second song, frontwoman Adrianne Lenker evokes Stevie Nicks in her warm, enchanting meditation on the trials of love. “Whatever comes,” Lenker sings, “When it comes / Whatever leaves.” Lenker’s vocals might be harsher, and her imagery might skew more abstract, but her melodic grace is unmistakably Fleetwood-esque.
That song would be given the name “Love In Mine” and added as a bonus track to Big Thief’s latest album, released Friday. The former, later named “Two Hands,” would become the title track.
Just as the songs “Two Hands” and “UFOF” complement each other, their respective albums do as well (Big Thief dubbed them “the Earth twin” and “the celestial twin,” respectively). While “U.F.O.F.” gazes upon the infinitude of space, “Two Hands” scrutinizes the intricacies of the self, the body and the Earth. “And they’ve long passed,” Lenker sings on “Forgotten Eyes,” “But they are no less the dirt / Of the common soil keeping us dry and warm.”
Even as a twin album, however, “Twin Hands” feels less stylistically bound than any of Big Thief’s past work. “U.F.O.F.” floats from beginning to end on light strings and hushed vocals. Big Thief’s first two albums — “Masterpiece” and “Capacity” — both color inside the lines of an a-little-acoustic-here, a-little-electric-there style.
On “Masterpiece,” for example, Big Thief transitions from the forceful, electric “Humans” to “Velvet Ring,” a decelerating acoustic piece. The two songs both flow together and juxtapose each other. With “Not” and “Wolf” off “Two Hands,” the band pulls a similar trick. Here, however, the two songs feel stylistically detached. “Wolf,” the latter, is quiet and reserved. “Not,” the former, is loud and sprawling; its lyrics are singular and fierce; its guitar solo writhes and wails; its listening experience transcends that of the album.
Even within songs, the pacing is fickle. “Shoulders” quiets in the penultimate line of each verse; then, in each following line, the song picks up into a forceful chorus. “The Toy” often verges upon sonic outbursts, but on each approach it doubles back. The chorus to “Those Girls” falls off at the end: “With all along, your arms around me / Try.”
These dissimilarities and irregularities make for a rocky listen but not without purpose. This album captures its corporeal subject matter in its true form, not filtered through standard musical composition. If there is one thing “Two Hands” masters more than melody, it is honesty.
Artist: Big Thief
Album: “Two Hands”
Favorite Tracks: “Two Hands,” “Not,” “Forgotten Eyes”
If you like: Aldous Harding, Better Oblivion Community Center
Shamrocks: 4 out of 5