The quiet enormity: Big Thief “U.F.O.F” review

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Rating: 8.3/10

“No resolution,” Adrianne Lenker sings on “Century,” one of the songs on her band Big Thief’s latest effort, “U.F.O.F.” “No circling dove / Still caught in the jaw of confusion.” The idea of resolution is also a musical concept, one that parallels the relational and emotional resolution we all seek. As music is often such an emotional medium, it seems interesting that a band such as Big Thief seems to both suggest and resist those resolutions both musically and emotionally.  

Big Thief’s music has always been oddly familiar but also freshly distinct. The band seems to effortlessly straddle that line between genre folk rock and an insular, unique style layered in dark guitar sounds and post-rock influence. Like a musical magic trick, their arrangements seem to barely evade the expected, always subtly subverting the listener’s expectations. It’s the way a guitar solo begins powerfully then dissolves away into the fabric of the song, or the way that a mix can subtly shift so that you notice a part that has actually been there all along.

Guess that makes it appropriate that the last song on “U.F.O.F.” is “Magic Dealer.” “Would it hurt, would it hurt to be nearer?” Lenker asks. “Heaven is stitching across me.” A minute into the song, a drum fill suggests that the track is about to shift from Lenker and bass to the full band. But like the misdirection of a magic trick, the song shifts right back into the same mode. “Carve magic dealer / Bring me the company I couldn’t buy.” The mysterious magic of life is our connection with others, and the dissonance and pain we experience seems reflected by the way the song fades away into an ambience of crackling and shuffling sounds.

“Century” is another winner on this album. After singing about the lack of resolution, Lenker sighs “Don’t know what I’d do for love / But stay another hour.” It’s a song rich with environmental imagery, which seems to suggest that selective memory that love gives us. We can remember all these little details tied to highly emotional times in our life, and its power makes us tremble at how it changes us and makes us act in certain ways. Meeks’ beautiful and too-short solo at the end seeps in like the tiniest bit of illumination in the confusion.

Lenker shows quite a range here. Her low utterings on “Betsy” almost feel like a different personality is pouring out of her. The way she sighs out the line “Drive to New York with me” is unbearably desperate, like the overwhelming feeling of meeting someone you suddenly can’t bear to lose. The whole of “U.F.O.F.” is filled with this desperation towards others, the yearning for others to make us feel okay about ourselves or grant us direction in the confusion and chaos of the world.

A few of these songs already appeared on Lenker’s most recent solo record “abysskiss.” “Terminal Paradise,” already a haunting song solo, takes on a whole new life with reserved vocal backup from Buck Meeks and a flurried, pastoral fingerpicked guitar that lends the song an appropriately anxious emotional weight. “From” is also given the full band treatment, with an excellent drum part from James Krivchenia, a syncopated, jazz-inflected rhythm that manages to change the atmosphere of the song completely from what appeared on “abysskiss.”

It’s quite the accomplishment to make an album that is at once so quiet and reserved while also touching on such expansive and world-encompassing feelings. I attribute it to the way that Big Thief curates their arrangements, poising rhythm and sounds in such a way that when an electric guitar tears into the mix, it feels like a gargantuan emotional statement. The same goes for the chorus of ambient voices that appear on “Strange.” The sudden rise of this ambience into the song feels at once disconcerting and cathartic, as if Lenker’s emotions had suddenly shifted from the internal to the external world.

What we discover on “U.F.O.F.” is a band at the top of its game. Big Thief has uncovered a synchronicity between each other that has allowed them to even further refine their sound. Everything is working here, from Meeks’ reserved solos and exploratory guitar tones to Krivchenia’s masterful drumming. Lenker’s raspy musings have never felt more appropriate, even as the sounds shift from folk-oriented ruminations such as “Orange” to dark, tumbling songs like “Jenni.” This is music with depth, that slowly reveals its layers and becomes richer with each ensuing listen. For those looking for strong melodic songs that instantly catch their ear, though, they may leave “U.F.O.F.” a little disappointed.

The Brooklyn band is on the rise, and “U.F.O.F.” could be their big breakthrough. With critics raving and a U.S. tour on the horizon, it wouldn’t be surprising to see them casting a much bigger shadow in the upcoming years.

 

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