“Making friends with the unknown… All my songs are about this,” says Big Thief songwriter Adrianne Lenker; “If the nature of life is change and impermanence, I’d rather be uncomfortably awake in that truth than lost in denial.” Embracing the unknown, while the sands are constantly shifting under your feet, is a theme that runs through ‘U.F.O.F.’ (the F standing for ‘Friend’) the exquisite third album from Brooklyn natives Big Thief.
There are times during opening track ‘Contact’ when it sounds like Adrianne Lenker is literally extracting all of the air from her body, such is the sigh of her brittle, yet shiveringly emotive vocal tone. This subtle tumbling acoustic motif, forward rolls across the still wet grass at midnight into a scream of horror and fizzing riff. It’s some opener and representative of the entire record that rifles through the unexpected and the beauty of the enduring landscapes.
U.F.O.F was recorded in rural western Washington at Bear Creek Studios under what sounds like the light of a full moon. In a large cabin-like room, the band set up their gear to track live with engineer Dom Monks and producer Andrew Sarlo, with a rustling palette, it’s a tantalising blurring of subtle Americana, and dream pop, one that bristles with the ghosts of Joan Baez, Bright Eyes, Neil Young and Angel Olsen but really sounds like none of them, dealing as it does compassionately with the uncertainty state of humanity, mysticism and nature and an embracing of whatever may come down the track.
Haunting lead track ‘U.F.O.F’ is even better, flickering tumbling arpeggios, subtle percussive trembles, and scythed by Lenke’s hushed voice that reaches for the comfort in an unforgiving and ugly world. Gliding like E.T’s spaceship through the forest, it’s absolutely glorious.
What’s so impressive is that Big Thief manage to constantly shift their sound throughout, fixing each formula in their gaze then attempting something slightly different but just as effective on the next track, yet glowing with a sparsity that threads its themes and sound together. It makes for an endlessly rewarding and utterly engrossing listen.
‘Cattails’ glistening six-string riff and rocking melody rattles along with the kind that mirrors swish and sway of a feline’s body as they slink off into the night. ‘Open Desert’ tiptoes at the back of acoustic cycles through paths and dreamlike revelation, shrouded in lights and fleeting visions of the past and what will come at the end of life (“after all my teeth is gone/after all the blood is drawn/the white light of the waiting coming through the crack in the door”). The gradually enveloping arpeggios of the rustling ‘From’ hint at an unknown visitation, one that arrives by night and scurries away by morning, the shifting percussive twitch and Leneker’s ghostly tones are shrouded in notes that are lit up like fireflies.
‘Orange’ is an excellent standout and one of the best songs I’ve heard this year, a meticulously drawn picture of fragility and heartbreak of a woman lost in despair, ripe with a level of poetic lyrical detail that’s heartbreaking as Leneker’s shivering masterful vocal performance (“Hound dogs crowing at the stars above/Pigeons fall like snowflakes at the border/She kneels down and holds the frozen dove/Moon drips like water from her shoulder”), with shades of the melancholia of Joni Mitchell yet sounding utterly unique, it is simply outstanding.
The rickety spindle of ‘Century’ with its shuffle of James Krivchenia‘s snare drums, circular riffs led by Lenker’s hushed empowering communal refrains (“we have the same power”). ‘Terminal Paradise’ rustles and swings with a majestic vocal performance from Leneker, shuffling marriage of percussion, scurrying backing vocals, and Buck Meek‘s muted guitars.
Following the acclaim of their first two back-to-back releases, Masterpiece (2016) and Capacity (2017) may have been a challenge for some, but Big Thief emphatically rise to the challenge with their most unselfconscious album yet. Their musicianship feels utterly entwined with their songwriting and it’s their most vivid and best release to date.
Thematically U.F.O.F invites you into its world, a most welcome visitation of parred back effortlessly magical songwriting. It’s a safe place of realisation and compassion shielding you from the nightmares of corners of the urban sprawl, perhaps it’s an allegory for the world at a time when it’s divided and destroyed, by focussing on the microscopic moments of humanity, the landscape and nature it speaks to big picture themes. As you listen, you feel like it’s telling you not to be afraid if you feel lost, leaving with you the warmth of an embrace, urging you to hold onto the ones you love. You’ve been on a journey and you might just make it home OK. And It sounds absolutely wonderous.