BIG THIEF – ” U.F.O.F. ” Best Albums Of 2019

Posted: January 19, 2021 in ALBUMS, MUSIC
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Another delicate and devastating piece of music from the pen of Big Thief’s Adrianne Lenker. Her deeply affecting, evocative lyrics are potent as ever on the Brooklyn band’s third album, and the music has that same free and unencumbered spirit as their best work in the past.

Adrianne Lenker is here for the journey. On rare breaks in her touring schedule, she travels. It’s a willing itinérance that confirms the singer-guitarist’s rapport with the unknown. “I’ve become very translucent,” she says. “I allow things to pass through me, rather than feeling them hit me, like a defense mechanism.”

Lenker and her band Big Thief has built their reputation on a transcendent live show, where the boundaries between performer and audience evaporate in the wake of Lenker’s vulnerability, words sprouting from her harrowing and beautiful depths. The folk-steeped indie-rock quartet has toured relentlessly since their 2016 debut Masterpiece and its 2017 follow-up Capacity became hits for Saddle Creek, playing hundreds of shows across North America, Europe, and Australia.

“I’m living out of my truck,” Lenker explains. Speaking from that vehicle, parked outside a café in Los Angeles, Lenker explains that life without a permanent home is freeing, but also has its drawbacks. “I’m driving this truck, and it’s a gas guzzler,” she says. “If I could afford it, I’d get an electric car, and I’ve been thinking about converting this one.”

The band’s third album, U.F.O.F., marks their debut for indie stalwart 4AD. Recorded with long time producer Andrew Sarlo at Bear Creek Studios near Seattle, the record showcases the locked-in nature of the band whose communal instinct has been honed by the intimacy of its live show, and the tacit bonds formed from an aggressive touring schedule. Capturing this spirit was essential in the recording process, and the band largely played live in a cozy, rustic room.  Big Thief, which includes guitarist Buck Meek, bassist Max Oleartchik, and drummer James Krivchenia. The group will live here together for a month, and eat, sleep, and rehearse for their upcoming tour. But today, the mountaintop hideaway is Lenker’s alone—one in a long line of interim homes for the songwriter, who ditched her Brooklyn apartment three-and-a-half years ago in exchange for a life on the road. “We basically set out on tour and kind of never went back,” she says. “When I’m not touring, I’m just visiting with people, or renting, staying in an AirBnB or a motel. I like it, but the grass is always greener in a way. I think I’m craving a space where I can be still. But I imagine if I had the stillness, I’d be longing for the road.”

“We wanted it to be one big moment of energy with lots of passions,” recalls Krivchenia. Many of the tracks on U.F.O.F. were recorded live—some in just one or two takes—in the studio’s cabin-like main room. “Dom had this focus on the microphones and capturing the sounds of our instruments, so we were able to dance a lot more,” recalls Lenker.

Lenker’s complicated relationship with her life in perpetual motion is one of the many inspiration points behind Big Thief’s latest record, U.F.O.F. Anchored by Lenker’s vocals, U.F.O.F. (the last F stands for “friend”) sounds as expansive as its title implies—a shimmering collection of songs about “the blood and the guts of the human experience and the outward wondering about the mystery of it all,” says Lenker. It’s the most ambitious music Big Thief have ever made. Compared to the band’s last two records, U.F.O.F.’s arrangements are fuller, brighter, and harsher, delivered with the kind of ease that can only come from years of living, working, and creating side-by-side.

“There’s always some element of that alchemy of us playing together in real time, rather than stacking everything,” Lenker says. “It’s important. When a band is actually playing together you can feel it in the recordings.” Though U.F.O.F.is sharp in its instrumentation—drums, bass, and guitars passing through one another with a patterned fluidity—it also exudes spontaneity. Ambient sounds and textures punctuate the songs, and Lenker’s vocals growl and skitter.

Led by Lenker’s stunning, vulnerable lyrics, Big Thief’s songs have the keen ability to command attention. Few do that as well as U.F.O.F.’s opening track, “Contact.” The song begins with Lenker’s trance-like voice and Meek’s droning atmospherics. “It started as this exercise about the movie “Contact,” says Lenker. “I was looking at this heroine [played by Jodie Foster] who was so brave and so passionate, but didn’t receive much recognition, and had to fight through life. She had this deep longing for contact with the unknown—she was so committed to it. I thought it was so inspiring. That’s what I want to be like. Sometimes I feel like I get there, but then sometimes I’m so far from that—I’m caught by the traps of my ego, or all these things that make me feel smaller. That whole beginning section [of the song] is this brooding, numb state—a state I’ve been fighting my whole life. When you’re depressed, you can go to this place where you could be run over and not even feel it. There’s this disassociation from the body. But at the same time, you can see the sun, you can see the wind, you can see all the life around you. You can recognize that there is life being breathed through everything, but somehow you just can’t feel yourself connected to it.”

Around the three-minute mark, “Contact” is jolted from its slow, languid rumination on depression by a jarring onslaught of noise, accompanied by Lenker’s big, blood-curdling scream. “The idea was this person who could sort of see the sunlight through the water, and suddenly they feel this hand on their arm and they get pulled up. Their lungs fill with oxygen and they can feel the joy, they can feel the loss, they can feel the beauty, they can feel the nastiness—they can feel everything suddenly because they’re alive. That scream is suddenly feeling the deepest and oldest wounds. It’s the scream of birth—of being knocked back into life.”

There’s an unexpected bite when she sings the phrase “screaming sound” on the fourth track, “From” (a song that also appeared on Lenker’s 2018 solo album abysskiss). The heart-rending enunciation poured out unexpectedly, and was a point of discomfort at first. “I’ve been practicing trusting the band, even to the point where I don’t always choose my vocal takes,” she says. “Even if I don’t like something, I let go of it if the collective thinks that it’s good. I’ve realized that I’m not a good judge of my own singing.”

Whether you’re losing your mind in the dizzying ‘From’, stomping your feet to the down-home Americana of ‘Cattails’, or bawling your eyes out to the title track – you’re not gonna get through this record without feeling some feelings.

Though her life isn’t tethered to possessions, there are aspects of keeping a home that she misses. “I imagine that if I lived in one place I would have a compost toilet, and would be gardening and cooking my meals, and biking around a lot,” she says. She’s also not remiss about the volume of disposable wares commensurate with life as a working musician. “It’s a pretty wasteful industry that we’re a part of, even making records,” she says. “All the paper products and fliers and water bottles and driving. Not to mention when you play festivals, there are all these products that are offered to you.”

This macro view of the music industry can feel staggering, so for now Lenker is focused on more easily attainable and conscious decisions when it comes to avoiding waste. “When I bring my little ceramic mug made by my friend into the coffee shop, and ask them to please put the coffee in there, I feel more myself,” she says. “It’s little things, like turning off the water when I’m brushing my teeth.” Though it can be easy to abandon these principles when rambling from green room to green room, she feels more grounded when honouring them. “I feel part of the earth in some small way,” she adds. “You can ignore these tiny thoughts, or you know, you can turn off the lights when you leave the room. The small things are really important.”

This spring, Lenker begins playing in support of U.F.O.F., marking the start of fifty tour dates at mid-sized clubs and European festivals stretching into November. She’ll have only July and September off to recharge, and admits that this amount of travel and outpouring of physical and emotional expression can be depleting—but to her, it’s mostly a blessing and an opportunity to connect.

“The only way we can do this is to try to knock walls down with our music,” she says. It’s in this open posture, on the road and in performances, that she’s found her greatest sense of self. “That’s Big Thief in a nutshell,” she says. “We’re digging through all these layers that separate us.”

Listen deeply and allow yourself to be taken by its subtle charms.

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