Big Thief Deals in Folk Mysticism on U.F.O.F.
by Mateo Rispoli
U.F.O.F. hits the ground limping and plods on until it reaches a dignified waltz. The opener, “Contact,” features the most heavy-handed drums on the album, adorned by Adrienne Lenker's soft-spoken lyrics, and capped with guitar pick slides that could easily be mistaken for shrill wails. “Jodi,” pleads Lenker, “please turn the pages for me/ you see so free/ you know I’m barely.” She’s often calling out someone’s name, however, in a grander sense, she appeals directly to the audience, confidently conveying a message she knows they’ll understand no more or less than herself. Big Thief’s U.F.O.F. is a 43-minute exploration of the greatest complexities in life, and it often looks to its listener for requited comfort that it too intends to supply.
Big Thief, the Brooklyn-based indie folk four-piece, somehow manages to mature with each release and never out of any necessity. Lyrically, Lenker’s chilly delivery has always worn a mask made of stone, making all the more exciting when it cracks. Instrumentally however, back up vocalist and guitarist Buck Meek, bassist Max Oleartchik, and drummer James Krivchenia, sound more tempered than before. Meek’s tone is almost exclusively clean, Oleartchik often opts for the drone to smooth out the low end, Krivchenia brushes alongside each folkie riff with such a chemistry that his loudest performance comes in his absence. Each of their performances bolster the sundrenched realism and the imagery forged within Lenker’s lyrics, making for their most thematically rich outing yet.
“Cattails,” one of the lead singles, acutely captures the throes of depression. One of the few tracks on the album in a major key, Lenker’s vocals are more eagerly delivered here than on any other. As she shakily hums out “And you don’t need to know why when you cry,” she attacks the strings of her guitar with more vigor, enthusiastically riffing in time with the stutter of Krivchenia’s characteristically humble snare and hi-hat fills. Olearchick provides a bass drone that often suspends the rest of the band, lifting their parts into a view from nowhere, a place in which they can all be absorbed into the confoundingly upbeat mood. “Cattails” holds steady, and it’s because it offers another solution to depression; carry it in stride, and move forward under no illusion of impermanence. Lenker provides imagery of riding a train “with the windows wide by your side,” the wind bouncing off in resilience. “In time, in time/ everyone does see trouble,” Lenker enlightens the amorphous “Caroline.”
Lenker’s vocals are unsettlingly serene. Her whispery delivery carries a sense of calm, while her words are thicked in the woods of existentialism, often contemplating where love fits and how much of life it permeates. The sound of the air leaving her lungs is as much a part of the vocal performance as her voice is. It makes the moments when her pitch wobbles and threatens to fall into the mix such a peerless accent. She sounds simultaneously in control and adrift, a persona that is strong bedfellows with the subject matter. Every syllable that whisks past her teeth lends to an overwhelming sense of intimacy. Airy vocal harmonies mixed throughout wrap the instrumentals in a blanket knit with large needles, the atmosphere allowed to flow through freely.
Lenker performs “Orange” solo at Pitchfork Festival 2018.
“Betsy” sees Lenker hanging low, singing a haunting baritone. She holds out her notes, and they glide across the track as she pleads, “drive into New York, with me,” before capping it off with a bassy staccato “big lights in the city.” If the rest of the album takes place during golden hour while staring out the window taking in the sun cut flat and spread across cedar shingles in Northeast suburbia, then this is dusk, and it’s scrolling by parallel with concrete and the glow of old incandescent street lamps.
The emotions captured in each track are similarly meticulous yet undefined. U.F.O.F is careful to never repeat itself, mapping out contrasting modes of somber, adding a dash of hope, and moving the story of each emotion forward. “Cattails” is about depression, but also persistence in the face of it. The title track focuses on the unknown and the hope of befriending it. “Strange” tackles age with the confidence that it has no real meaning. “Terminal Paradise” views death as a natural process of Earth’s rightful reclamation. It’s even wistfully captured in the instrumentals. The aforementioned “Strange” opens with guitars swinging in time with the hi-hat, until halfway through the bass starts to trail off, the mix dips its toe into some light vocal harmonies, then, taking a gingerly plunge as they encase the song like the waters in a hot spring, Lenker lets loose, “You have wings of gold/ You will never grow old/ And turquoise lungs/ You have never been young.” Longtime producer Andrew Sarlo makes it clear that he understands the material, filling each soundscape with steam, mystery, or nothing at all when appropriate.
U.F.O.F. posits the strangest company of all is ourselves. A date scheduled with the self invites unwanted guests; rampant thoughts, memories, regrets, and anxiety about what's to come next and after. “The seasons will bend/ There will soon be proof/ That there is no alien/ Just a system of truth and lies/ The reason, the language/ And the law of attraction” gasps Lenker on the title track. Lenker revels in change and not understanding, but coming to terms with not understanding. U.F.O.F. is a bath drawn with ruminations on the aspects of life beyond human capacity, it presents an open invitation to the listener to take a dip, yet it makes no guarantee they will ever drip dry.