When they first emerged as one of the most prolific new bands in indie rock, Big Thief’s superpower was making spare, delicate music that quietly held the power to devastate. Their first albums, like 2016’s Masterpiece and the following year’s Capacity, boasted the type of music you’d hear in the background at a coffee shop or in a Warby Parker, oblivious to its catastrophic abilities. Upon deeper listening, however, the stories told through the guttural vocals of Adrianne Lenker could shake you to your core.
With the release of their new double album, Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You, out Friday (February 11th), Big Thief have done the virtually impossible by making five great records in the same number of years. And at an ambitious 20 tracks long with over 90 minutes of runtime, Dragon could easily feel overstuffed had a lesser band attempted the same feat. But songwriting seems to come to the members of Big Thief like a river: Constantly in motion, entrancing, and — most importantly — evolving as it passes through different settings.
Big Thief have pulled off putting out so much music in such a short amount of time because their past three records have boasted a distinct sonic ambience. U.F.O.F., the first of two albums the band released in 2019, adhered to its cosmic title with an air of celestial eeriness; Its successor, Two Hands, took on a grittier and grungier tone.
On Dragon, Big Thief push their boundaries even further, partially due to the fact that they divided the recording of it between four distinct sessions in vastly different environments during five months in summer 2020. First, the band made the short trek from their Brooklyn home base to upstate New York, where they resorted to unorthodox recording methods as a result of faulty electricity and, on at least one occasion, played a take in wet swimsuits.
Next, Big Thief headed to Topanga Canyon, galvanized by the sense of Southern California freedom: Some of the most joyful sounding songs, namely “Little Things,” “Time Escaping,” and “Simulation Swarm,” arose from this session, during which Lenker let her lyrics flow as “unabashed and psychedelic” as, she says, she naturally thinks.
After a stint in the Colorado Rockies, Big Thief wrapped up Dragon in Tucson, Arizona, where they brought in a fifth instrumentalist for the first time — Mat Davidson of Twain — to further flesh out the album’s sound. Thanks to its team of collaborators and various disparate points of origin, Dragon feels like a collage of sorts, the common threads being Lenker’s unmatched artistry and an indelible bond between her bandmates.
While Dragon still boasts many tried-and-true folk numbers — like the gentle title track or “Promise Is a Pendulum,” a solo Lenker highlight — the band introduces prominent synths and other electronic elements for the first time in their discography. “Flower of Blood,” a jittery song on which Lenker details a parasitic relationship. “Like a knife carving through my thick skin/ When you touch me,” she sings over a cacophony of computer textures that evoke a bone-chilling sense of unease.
Next, “Blurred View” features a swarm of electric guitars and a muffled, complex drum beat that recalls early Björk. Its lyrics are similarly imaginative, splicing together thought-provoking metaphors that illustrate Lenker’s perception of herself: “I am the magazine, the blue screen/ The big hand moving past the last thing/ I turn for you.”
Lenker wrote all but one song on Dragon by herself, and while her songwriting has always been among the most powerful of the past decade, it’s not only refreshing, but thrilling, to see Big Thief take a broader sonic direction without ever losing the raw passion that put them on the map.
Big Thief’s albums have always been too complex to fit into one category; Dragon is no exception, weaving songs of healing, pain, joy, and self-discovery after one another. Lenker has never been one to reveal too much about exactly what her lyrics mean, preferring to let listeners derive their own themes from her dreamlike, often puzzling words.
One of the songs on Dragon with the clearest meaning, however, is the closer “Blue Lightning.” Lenker has said she grew up in a dysfunctional family, leaving her with traumas that have followed her to adulthood; “Blue Lightning,” on the other hand, is described by Lenker as a love letter to her bandmates, with whom she’s found a chosen family and potential for healing. “I wanna be the shoelace that you tie/ Yeah I wanna be the vapor gets you high,” she croons, expressing an earnest desire to be both dependable and indulgently whimsical.
Lenker closes out Dragon with perhaps some of the most simply sentimental words she’s put to tape: “I wanna live forever ‘til I die,” she repeats over a jaunty, bluegrass-inspired instrumental. On the surface, it seems as obvious as the sun rising in the east — but what feeling is more euphoric than the genuine desire to live, each moment until you take your final breath?
Essential Tracks: “Time Escaping,” “Blurred View,” “Blue Lightning”
Ed. note: Catch Big Thief on tour; tickets are available via Ticketmaster.
Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You Artwork: