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‘Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You’, Big Thief Album Review

'The physical manifestation of proximity in music creation' Sophia Zu's review of Big Thief's recent album release

In the midst of the pandemic, Adrianne Lenker (Big Thief’s lead singer) ventured into the wilderness, fresh from heartbreak, and released two new solo albums, songs and instrumentals. “Dragon in the new warm mountain,” she sings on the track ‘anything’, “didn’t you believe in me?” 

Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You, Big Thief’s latest album, is a ninety-minute meditation and answer. An album about cosmic timings and earthly connections, weaving deftly between the themes explored in their twin albums U.F.O.F. and Two Hands released in 2019. More than any other band, Big Thief’s music represents an ecosystem. Written by Lenker and produced by their drummer James Krivchenia, the songs of Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You are the physical manifestation of proximity in music creation, resulting in a rich and tapestry-like oeuvre that is held and tugged together by invisible, woven strings.

At its heart, this is an album about love. The first track, ‘Change’, is a quietly contemplative piece on the nature of aftermaths —on darkness, the stillness after cacophonous laughter.  With all the “beauty of the moon rising” or the “secret of the quiet night”, the shift from being sunbathed and light-soaked is filled with despair. “Could I feel happy for you when I hear you talking with her like we used to?” Lenker asks, “could I set everything free, when I watch you holding her the way you once held me?”  

Even though Big Thief oftentimes weaves the macroscopic universe through their writing, their music is inherently earthen, teeming with microbes of guitar licks and held together by a mycorrhizal network of lush instrumentation. Even in ‘Time Escaping’, a discordant and dissonant track featuring deadened guitars laced with wallet debris, an undercurrent of life is breathed through the track by Lenker’s deft characterization of nature (in this case, weeds). Likewise, ’Sparrow’ features a simple, repeated melodic motif  whilst still managing to paint a subtle  renaissance portrait of reclaimed womanhood. Brush strokes of colour are added in the form of layered voices, distortion, and the underlying thistle of dense instrumentation that expands and contracts alongside Lenker’s voice. She sings about Eve, “breasts bound and burdened with fiber.” She sings about snakes, who “talk to and guide her.” She sings about Adam, who “trembles” besides this all and warns Eve of the “poison inside her.” She sings, and perhaps the sparrow listens. While some rock music can sound stagnant, standing firmly in an ethos built through just chord progressions, this is never the case for Big Thief. Their organismal approach to music ensures that, like us, their music breathes and caresses. 

Lenker’s lyrical prowess is a highlight of all her projects, oftentimes paying  homage to lush forests and still air. In this new album, she embraces a wilder, more carefree approach to poetry, rhyming “finish” with “potato knish” on ‘Spud Infinity’ or rhyming “apple” with itself in four consecutive lines on ‘Sparrow’. A country-twanged track that deviates from the indie folk crater Big Thief inhabits, ‘Spud Infinity’ is a raucous, fun track offering a celebration of life and acceptance. Lenker wanders from the exogenous to the endogenous, from the planets to human organs.  “One peculiar organism aren’t we all together,” Lenker sings, “when I say celestial, I mean extra-terrestrial, I mean accepting the alien you’ve rejected in your own heart.” 

The most heart-wrenching Big Thief songs are those that explore the intimacy of human spaces—the corner of the kitchen where the radio sings, unmade beds, green shades on lamps, a drive along to a favourite song—and how they can amplify and colour our emotions. These vestiges of comfort are peppered throughout DWMIBIY, and Big Thief uses a microscopic focus to distill and condense these moments into greater themes of memory and loss. Loss, like “a fallen eyelash.” Love, like “dark steeping coffee.”  

On ‘Little Things’, an endorphin-charged track about infatuation, Lenker sings about “seeing out that needle eye” so much so that she “lose[s] sight of every other face.” The needle-eyed lens is a major theme throughout the album. On ‘Promise is a Pendulum’, Lenker weaves through familiar characters in the Big Thief lore (red oaks and red smoke, winters of white birches) but delves especially deeply into scenes of infatuation—the shadow between the cheek and the eye, canopies of lashes, a singular freckle. And after heartbreak, she sings to herself: “I’ve been listening to the memory…listening to the echo of whys and because, listening to the echo telling me to let go.”  While this particular track shows an impressive amount of self-awareness and resignation, this is not true throughout the album. “I’m scared to die alone,” Lenker admits, and warns on ‘Love Love Love’: “Watch me bleed your love.”  

The titular track, ‘Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You’, is a dreamy, hazy soundscape interjected with trills of flute, chime and Lenker’s climbing, wispy voice. When she sings “it’s a little bit magic,” one wonders as to what she refers to.  The chanting weeds, or the morning geese? In ‘Promise is a Pendulum’, Lenker admits: “When all the material scatters and ashes amplify, the only place that matters is by your side.” Even with all the cosmos, all the universe, all the white birches and red oaks of the world, there is no place more magical nor grander than in the neck of love, wrestled in the shadows between the cheek and the eye.  

Image credit: Martin Schumann//Wikipedia 

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