Art by Beyza Çimenki
"Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You" by Big Thief (4AD, 2022)
Big Thief is changing. Like seasons, like songs, like all of us: expanding and contracting and becoming themselves. Across five albums the four-piece has improved, refined, and contradicted their singular sound every step of the way. Over their discography, their subtle, organic approach to folk and indie music has grown from disarmingly vulnerable to immensely powerful. Big Thief’s music is the ever-changing present: a beautiful, thorny mess that, once fully glimpsed, is gone. “Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You” (a mouthful of a title perfect for the album itself and its near-movie-length runtime) is Big Thief at their most adventurous, honest, and life-affirming. This is the band’s most fully realized, vibrant, and thought-provoking work yet, and their best album by far.
Behind Big Thief’s raw, unkempt vision of folk-rock is the captivating singer-songwriter Adrianne Lenker. Her naturalistic, often-heartbreaking songwriting is Big Thief’s ace-in-the-hole, and they know it. Her lyrics and performance have remained the band’s emotional cornerstone since their inception; on-record and in performance, we can hear the band alter their playing around her tempos, and follow her voice like a North Star. Lenker’s poetry, concerned with the beauty and decay of nature, relationships, and personal identity, is always immediately arresting. But on “Dragon. . .,” her vocal performances are more exploratory and invigorating than ever before; she yelps, ponders, shrieks, seduces, even throws a hoe-down or two. Fresh sounds give her words a new power and room to breathe.
On two exceptional albums in 2019--“UFOF” and “Two Hands”--Big Thief’s songwriting opened itself up. Songs became less conceptual, more down-to-earth. These sister albums cut to the core of Big Thief, and “Dragon. . .” is an enormous follow-up that mines those same emotional depths with unimaginably great new instrumental ideas. Don’t expect too much from the Big Thief of old, with whisper-quiet indie folk or dusty rock balladry--here, New Wave, world music, pop, country, and bluegrass influences intermingle with folk music in wild, unpredictable ways. This is Big Thief enjoying writing, and writing around what speaks to them at that moment. This effect is largely due to this album’s unique recording style: in stark contrast to their last albums, they recorded it in pieces, in four sessions in four locations across the United States, with drummer James Krivchenia consistently producing the tracks. This imbues the album with an immediacy and beautifully un-enunciated tension. Since their debut album “Masterpiece” back in 2016 Big Thief always has wrestled with capital-i Ideas, but on their latest album their approach to conveying them could not be more expansive yet simple: they write songs, and sing them.
Some bands pride themselves on bringing the same party every night--an exact copy of themselves the set before, down to the stage banter. Planned to give people what they pay for; no more, no less. Not so with Big Thief. Some nights the band lean into hard-roots, distortion-caked folk-rock; on others, they’re an ethereal, near-ambient presence floating above the crowd. Most sets see them seesawing between the two, blurring their catalog together in a captivating rush. This is the ethos of “Dragon. . .,” which somersaults between genres, ideas, and feelings so quickly that it would be overwhelming if each song wasn’t so damn good.
“Change” followed by “Time Escaping,” is a one-two that sets the blueprint for the record: the former is tender, warm, and enveloping, maybe “classic Big Thief.” Then, after being lulled into a peaceful trance, “Time Escaping” rolls in, a rumbling, clattering percussion-led jam session that winds down into something practically psychedelic. Big Thief set you off balance with these two tracks, and then bust open their capabilities as a band with “Spud Infinity,” which finds the band writing an honest-to-god bluegrass ditty. And it’s so fucking good. Fiddle and harp squeak and squawk around a barn-dance instrumental, which Lenker’s vocals sway and dance on top of--it’s a moment of levity and light we’ve never seen from Big Thief, a fantastic feeling that the album luckily returns to.
“Red Moon,” another country number placed at the album’s center, is its second joyous high point. I won’t spoil the breakdown halfway through, but if it doesn’t make you smile you should check your pulse. “Red Moon” is followed by “Dried Roses”--the best Townes Van Zandt song that Townes Van Zandt never wrote. Bassist Jason Burger shines on “Sparrow,” an enveloping folk song that spreads out like a bruise over its runtime, while Buck Meek’s plaintive, whining guitar lines lend depth to songs like "Change" and the title track. “Wake Me Up to Drive” introduces patient drum machines to the mix, while “Little Things” is an echo-drenched barn-burner with a twitchy rhythm section that plays like “UFOF’s” “Cattails’” in the big city. But it is the biggest genre diversions that go over best: “Heavy Bend,” “Flower of Blood,” and “Blurred View,” are perhaps the most fascinating and hard-hitting songs on the album. Inspired by indie pop, goth, New Wave, and even Portishead-esque trip-hop, these are tracks that explode the limits of Big Thief. Placed right next to each other and revealing unseen depths of the band, this trio of tracks transform this album--frankly, they have burrowed themselves into my brain, and are some of my favorite Big Thief songs in their catalog.
The second half of the album finds Big Thief returning to softer sounds, still imbued with light and energy from its slapdash style. Fan-favorite “Simulation Swarm” is another highlight in an album full of them; its plucky, winding guitar solo is maybe Lenker’s best on the album. “Blue Lightning” is a rousing tear-in-your-beer ballad that fades into a gentle oblivion, a perfect note to end this fantastic release. Gentle and intimate, “Dragon. . .” lets the listener down easy without easing up on the throttle.
James Krivchenia has described a Big Thief live set like riding a dragon--all of the band holding on for dear life, clinging to each other to get through these massive songs they have created together. Lenker, perhaps, guiding the dragon’s head, steering it to places in the distance only she can see. This feeling--the guiding of the dragon--is captured so well on “Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You” that it's almost tempting to call it a live record. It gives off that same feeling of witnessing music, not just listening to it. In the end, twenty tracks feel too short--we wish for an encore. This album is a perfect encapsulation of Big Thief at this point in time; evolving, changing, listening to each other, simply playing the songs that speak to them.