Between mystery and revelation

Big Thief are an indie rock/folk band based in Brooklyn, New York, comprising (clockwise from front row, right) Adrianne Lenker, Max Oleartchik, Buck Meek and James Krivchenia.
Big Thief are an indie rock/folk band based in Brooklyn, New York, comprising (clockwise from front row, right) Adrianne Lenker, Max Oleartchik, Buck Meek and James Krivchenia. PHOTO: 4AD

INDIE ROCK

U.F.O.F.

Big Thief

4AD

4 stars

Listening to Big Thief is akin to immersing in the dreamy cinema of auteur Terrence Malick - they both extol the wonder of life and death, the universe, love, generational baggage and what-not's, but you don't quite know how they achieve it.

The Brooklyn indie-rock quartet's third album, U.F.O.F. (the last "f" standing for "friend"), inhabits a similar state of existential suspension, hovering between startling revelation and baffling mystery.

Whereas their previous albums, 2016's debut Masterpiece and 2017's feted follow-up Capacity, zoom in on past trauma and caress still-painful wounds, here the band take an otherworldly, and out-of-the-body, approach.

Vocalist and songwriter Adrianne Lenker has described the latest record as "making friends with the unknown". She explains: "If the nature of life is change and impermanence, I'd rather be uncomfortably awake in that truth than lost in denial."

The possibility of extra-terrestrial beings colours such songs as the title track where she recounts a brief encounter with an alien.

Over decorous guitar and softly syncopated drums, Lenker whispers like Charlotte Gainsbourg: "Just like a bad dream/You'll disappear/Another map turns blue… And I imagine you/Taking me outta here."

In the opening track Contact, she appears to make a reference to the 1997 sci-fi film of the same name starring Jodie Foster as a determined scientist trying to communicate with those extra-terrestrial beings.

"She is both dreamer and dream," she sings sotto voce over languorous guitars and sleepy percussion before a series of eerie screams (but heard from a distance) hijack and shred the peace.

Such is the emotional delicacy - Big Thief are not afraid to be vulnerable, opting for the minor key when one is wont to go over-the-top. These can be witnessed in how two sparse songs originally from Lenker's 2018 solo album abysskiss are lightly augmented here. Dummer James Krivchenia adds a staccato groove to From, while guitarist/co-vocalist Buck Meek shadows her vocals with caramel baritone in Terminal Paradise.

Indeed, with a few deft, elliptical strokes, her human portraits come to life. A tremulous ballad like Orange is strummed close, and Lenker confides in throes of ecstasy: "Fragile is that I mourn her death/As our limbs are twisting in her bedroom."

In comparison, Betsy is sung in a register lower than her usual range, making her sound unrecognisable at first. Disjunctive phrases - "how she keeps me calm/Street lights, boys and poison palms" - shore up this ode to someone who provides solace.

Whether it's Violet, her great-grandmother, in Cattails or a friend called Jenni in the entrancing song of the same name, Lenker and company invoke a commune of soulmates, of sisters, of family members who come and go. These ties - some valued, others mourned over - are pored over with discretion and compassion.

You are invited to her inner sanctum, to wander among these folks with their hopes and fears, but stay longer before they will open up to you.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 09, 2019, with the headline 'Between mystery and revelation'. Print Edition | Subscribe