"Thrilling, terrifying and terrific."
“You do not have to be good.” The first words of Mary Oliver’s poem Wild Geese read as if they could serve as something like a mantra for Big Thief, whose fifth full-length record – a sprawling double-album, irreverently titled Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You – is a celebration of the unavoidability of being oneself, in all the strange and mysterious ways that entails.
It is this belief that animates every aspect of the Brooklyn-based band’s music as they traverse genres, moods, and styles across the twenty songs gathered here. Drummer James Krivchenia produced the record, conceiving the idea that the four-piece band should travel to four different studios around the country, recording a plethora of songs, in an attempt to capture the breadth and depth of singer and songwriter Adrienne Lenker’s imagination. Faced with this task, the band have let go of the expectation to be good, trusting themselves to create something that, paradoxically, is greater than the sum of their parts; Big Thief have learned to let the soft animal of their body love what it loves.
“We go on stage and suddenly it feels like we are now on a dragon,” bassist Max Oleartchik has said. At the risk of mixing metaphors, the double-album format offers proverbially-blinded listeners different parts of the dragon’s body to grasp onto. Goofball country songs bump up against downbeat trip-hop excursions, and a miscellany of assorted instruments and guests are credited in the liner notes. As in life, change remains the only constant – it’s also the title of the first song, a hushed ballad recorded surreptitiously while the band were rehearsing.
Faith in possibility inevitably carries with it the risk of absurdity, but this is a quality Lenker cheerfully embraces. Within Spud Infinity, for instance, she somehow sings the words “garlic bread”, “potato knish”, and “extra-terrestrial” in the span of one song. Despite the incessant jaw-harp that jauntily accompanies this tune, it’s no novelty though. Like much of the album, it’s a song about “accepting the alien you’ve rejected in your own heart”, as Lenker winningly puts it, which seems as good a summary as any of the band’s mission statement.
Failure and lovelessness are always possibilities, too – not to mention death. A seasoned songwriter, Lenker is no stranger to these themes; Sparrow and The Only Place depict familiar apocalyptic scenarios. However, these experiences are figured as essential in the sense that they remain inextricably bound up in the confluence of all things. “‘Maybe I love you’ is a river so high / ‘Maybe I love you’ is a river so low,” she sings on Certainty. It’s this thrilling, terrifying and terrific state of potentiality that makes Big Thief worth paying attention to, or anything else worth doing.
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