Albums Of The Week: No sugarcoating reality in Big Thief’s album Capacity

For a moment, you think the person on the album cover is Adrianne Lenker, the shornhead frontwoman of the Brooklyn-based indie-rock quartet.

As it turns out, it is an old photo of her uncle cradling an infant Lenker. It is this nondescript unexpectedness, a frankness to confront the past and present, which distinguishes this rising singer-songwriter.

In this respect, Lenker, 26, demonstrates a mix of tough hide and open heart also seen in strong female musicians, namely Sharon van Etten, Shannon Wright and Julien Baker.

In Lenker's case, it is her unerring empathy that lends bite to her stories of family, friends and ex-lovers.

Listen to Mythological Beauty, a recount of a childhood incident from a parent's point of view. Lenker got her head hit by a railroad spike and her mother was freaking out.

"You held me in the backseat with a dishrag/soaking up blood with your eye/I was just five and you were 27 praying don't let my baby die," she sings, grit in her wisp, guitars and drums calmly crowding around.



    Big Thief

    Saddle Creek

    4/5 stars

Domestic scenes of bliss are not varnished over, and danger lurks, smiling, a sheep dog ready to prance.

Likewise, the title track of their second album is a maelstrom of mangled riffs and thumping drums slowly gaining steam. It is a cool-headed dissection of passiveaggressiveness, the complicated game of love, rebuff and ego crushed.

Discovering her object of affection has turned his attention to another friend, she dismisses, words laced with asinine ambiguity: "I wrapped my arms around her/She was a beautiful figure/There are no enemies."

It is her narrative gift for exquisite pacing and distancing that keeps you on tenterhooks. Are we good or are we not?

Intimacy becomes menacing on Watering, where a stalker turns violent. "And you know that I'm there/As you soak in my stare with your right arm," she intones over wiry riffs, before her voice rises to airlessness. "Come to me," she sings, fraying.

This is followed by Coma, a lullaby where she sweetly exhorts: "You can wake up now momma/From your protective coma", before the reality sinks in: "You won't recognise your house/Will you recognise the/Iris of the body?"

Lenker wants to soothe, but she won't sugarcoat reality.

Listening to songs named after and dedicated to old friends she has lost contact with, you get a good sense of the community she inhabits.

It is the equivalent of the suburbia of independent filmmakers Harmony Korine and Larry Clark, where nothing much seems to happen, but everything does under the surface.

And so, she remembers Haley and how they used to kick "around burying letters we wrote", and Mary whose "eyes were like machinery".

Where are they now? You wonder, by now drawn into Lenker's circle of confidantes.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 12, 2017, with the headline 'No sugarcoating reality'. Print Edition | Subscribe