On the opening track of Big Thief’s latest outing, ‘Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You’, singer-guitarist Adrianne Lenker poses a question: “Would you live forever, never die / while everything around you passes? Would you smile forever, never cry / while everything around you passes?” In whimsical tones, she users her listeners into her contemplative space, meditating aloud on what becomes the album’s leitmotif: change. Its capacity to render the past forgotten, the present vulnerable, the future uncertain. ‘What happens if we don’t open our eyes and invest our full attention in the present moment?’ she seems to ask. What happens is that the present moment escapes us, and time passes us by. So the only alternative? To roll up our sleeves and dive into it.
Lenker’s willingness to leave no stone unturned in her search for honesty sets her apart from many of her contemporary songwriters. The past decade has seen a host of soft-rock song-writers prone to penning lyrics with endearing but shallow nonchalance. Mac Demarco address change in his own yawning way on ‘Nobody’; that “there’s no turning back / to nobody / no second chance / no third degree.” To Mac and his many surf-pop imitators, the knowledge that each moment should be lived with a full appreciation of its precious finitude is too great a burden to
confront head on. It is much easier to “let it go/cash it in/for the man/on television” than confront being’s unbearable lightness. This trope gets close to what alternative rock has verged on becoming in recent years; music that shrugs at the difficult stuff. Et cetera rock affectionately coined chill-wave.
Contrarily, for Lenker “There’s “endless mystery in that we’re hurtling through space, completely f*cking everything up…I like humour because it feels like a survival skill.” This is a behemoth of an album whose hastily captured ideas and overflowing creativity is complemented by a wry humour that observes from above. Trip-hop turns slacker rock turns alt-country as Big Thief flit between songs at high speed. On ‘Spud Infinity’, “finish” is rhymed with “potato knish,” over a fiddle and jaw harp, in what appears a sly jab at the hokiness of country music. But beneath the seemingly breezy playfulness lies deeper meaning. She continues: “when I say infinity I mean now/kiss the one you are right now/kiss your body up and down, other than your elbows.” The elbow lyric initially seems so charmingly puerile, but within is a serious reiteration of the need to find freedom in the present, rather than simply watching time pass as a spectator.
Time is an important subject for Lenker on this album, but its best moments surface when the clocks stop, and time is forgotten. Although it has a childlike goofiness, equally significant is its yearning for the ego-free, timeless state that comes from the capacity for profound absorption unique to adolescence. Dragon is at its most rewarding during moments of quiet, piercing reflection that unify subject and object. The artist finds unity in focused presence, and so equally does the listener, merely by listening. On the title track, Lenker describes an instant when “the topsoil/is kicking up into the storm/and the dust goes dancing/and a billion planets are born.” Elsewhere, she murmurs that “promise is a pendulum, just swinging at your door,” a further recognition of the intrinsic transience of the fleeting moment, the need to sometimes simply stop; to “listen to the frog’s joke/listen to the fire smoke.” She has a knack for finding stillness in the midst of chaos, and silence beneath noise; for “learning the secret of the quiet night.”
Although not strictly a romantic album, love is recognised as the transcendent clock-stopper and self-forgetter on Dragon. On ‘Simulation Swarm’, Lenker wants to “drop my arms and take your arms and walk you to the shore,” sung with typical breathless animation, which guitarist Buck Meek follows with a skittishly muddy guitar riff. On ‘The Only Place’, Lenker’s unaccompanied voice skims low then soars over fingerpicking that eddies like running water: “what if all the worlds in space/would melt into one single place/and intertwine the human race/with other kinds.” Like The Beach Boys song ‘Your Summer Dream’, when you “see another couple over there/to them an ordinary day,” or Greta Gerwig, who describes a “secret world that exists right there in public, unnoticed,” in Frances Ha, Big Thief put bittersweet, naïve melody-esque lyrics to the private and world-narrowing experience of falling in love.
A rambling account of individual growth, Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You is a totalising album that embraces the vicissitudes of life with equal parts humour, fragility and wrapped fascination. On the final track, ‘Blue Lightning’, Lenker “wants to be so happy I could die/wants to be the shoelace that you tie.” Significantly, however, she returns to her starting question. “Yeah, I wanna live forever ‘til I die,” she repeats. The wheel has come full circle, and perspectives have changed along the way. The self-contradiction continues until it is cut short; “Yeah I…” It feels like acceptance, a refusal to explain more. The Talking Heads put it well. With change, sometimes, “the less we say about it the better.”
Image courtesy of Jon Hill, via Flickr