Rockier, more brittle songs on 'earth twin'

Restlessness and refuge. These twin forces, alternately contrarian and complementary, fuel and power Big Thief's indie-rock sojourns.

Five months ago, the Brooklyn foursome released their third album, U.F.O.F., recorded in the lush Washington retreat of Bear Creek, and illumed with stars and soft hues, asking questions about, say, making a mysterious connection with an alien.

Now, the band have followed the "celestial twin" with its "earth twin", an album grounded in terra firma.

The songs are rockier and more brittle, being conceived in El Paso, in the dry Chihuahuan Desert of Texas and, significantly, a stone's throw from the Mexican border, where American immigration has become a hot-potato issue.

As singer Adrianne Lenker observes in an interview: "The fence actually ran through the property of the recording studio… There's so much beauty in this country, but it just seems like some kind of crazy joke sometimes."

Two Hands taps this urgency, a ceaseless striving, and the undying need to bridge and maintain contact. Songs are tactile, dirtied-up, desiccated - all gnarly guitars, no overdubs and a couple of songs feature live vocal takes.

Rock And Sing disarms with a rock-a-bye lullaby, but its sentiment is ambivalent. "Confuse my home for a refuge," she sings, her voice trembling. "I don't want to be scared of anybody coming/I don't want to lock my door anymore."



    Big Thief


    4 Stars

The same goes for the bucolic title track, burnished with stellar xylophone and guitar, as she zeroes in on the fragility of a relationship: "And the more that we try/To figure through the answers/To repeat ourselves/To deny."

The seventh track, Not, is a jeremiad for these times, as Lenker's voice - ranging from a wheeze to a guttural yelp - goes through a litany of negations, as if desperate to protect any smidgen of humanity from marauding invaders.

"Not what you really wanted/Nor the mess in your purpose/Nor the bed that is haunted/With the blanket of thirst," she spits out.

Her voice crackles at the word "hunger" in the next line, the track erupting in a final squall of febrile riffs and vertiginous drum-work: "It's not the hunger revealing/Not the ricochet in the cave."

This is counterpointed by Wolf, a deceptively gentle folkish strummer in which Lenker holds on dearly to a razor-thin wisp, belying threadbare sanity: "When she holds me in her jaw/All the blood dripping/Will I be free/To cease gripping?"

Similarly, Shoulders - a song about a domestic tragedy - wrestles with what would make a man snap.

"Your head was doubled over/ And the blood of the man/Who's killing our mother with his hands/Is in me, it's in me," she rasps, mirrored by the guitars and drums which go soft, loud, then louder, shell-shocked by her own realisation.

Such is her understanding of the human capacity to love and to destroy, to embrace and to inflict, and the listener, likewise, learns not to take anything - a pastoral lilt, a sore wail, silence - for granted.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 31, 2019, with the headline 'Rockier, more brittle songs on 'earth twin''. Print Edition | Subscribe