U.F.O.F. (2019, 4AD)
Two Hands (2019, 4AD)
CW: Throughout this article, I mention things such as bullying, suicide and self-harm, violence and domestic violence.
Sunday morning, post-breakfast, before the big whatever: Mum says she has something important to tell you, a secret, a something that can only be whispered.
It’s not for the others to know. You tiptoe; Mum reassures you, though you know you’re the punchline. It’s just enough to get you to walk over and sit next to her.
Your imagination goes outside. What is she going to tell you?
These are albums whose components I know intimately. I know “Cattails” — the best impression I’ve heard of an early Fleetwood Mac track led by John Fahey’s guitar — to the 16th beat, while I’ve exhausted the Crazy Horse-isms of “Not” so much I can hear it groan every time I press play.
The band recorded them back-to-back: U.F.O.F. (known as the “celestial” twin) was recorded in a cabin studio outside of Seattle; Two Hands (dubbed the “earth” twin) was made in the Texas desert, near the Mexican border, in a series of live studio takes.
The former is subtle and beguiling, hushed acoustic guitars, gentle vocals and almost invisible snare hits, with subtle ambience (“Terminal Paradise”) and slow-core approximations (“Jenni”) that crash into the frame abruptly before exiting gently, just as Adrianne Lenker’s scream in “Contact” gives way to a pensive outro. The latter is scorched distortion and drenched in sweat, reeking of the intimacy of four people channelling everyday kosmische (“Not” again), familial horror (“Shoulders”) and social observation (“The Toy”).
Confined with two siblings in the backseat, the car is nearly home. Brother has used some bad words. Mum and Dad tell him if he does it again, they’ll wash his mouth out with soap. You whisper to him to do it again.
The F at the end of “U.F.O.F.” stands for “friend.” Many of the songs across both records resist easy confessionals or direct diatribes; names are substituted for pronouns. “Sometimes I’m saying real people’s names because there’s no better word for them… Or maybe Jodi is a part of me. I really get quite tired of ‘I’ and ‘you’ in songs,” Lenker tells Pitchfork’s Jayson Greene in April.
There are plenty of interviews out there that tell you things you already know about these albums, but the subtext is clear: one is about how the unknown is ultimately your friend, and the other uses that understanding to elucidate the confrontation of the matter of fact. The albums are in conversation, but as separate entities.
You’re in year two or four or six: A bully stamps you in the head one, two, three, maybe four times. There’s a hurdle to the left, a hurdle to the right; in front, a slope, a fence, a highway to the north. When your eyes open you gaze at the ground’s dried brown — There was once lawn here.
In 20 years, will the hurdles still be there?
Ambience is distraction. I’ve survived the existential dead-end of my past 12 months away from home through a combination of deconstructed club music, contemporary classical, minimalist drone and rave revivalism, regularly consuming podcasts about writing to remind myself what a privilege it is to be paid to write at all.
An artist-turned-journalist, I start DJing for myself up to three nights a week, building temporary utopias out of my digital detritus because I have nothing better to do. I finish up with an archive of around 40 mixes, the rest already deleted; I suspect there’s only three I’d be willing to share with anyone.
I hear “Cattails” during a point in the year in which I needed it; “Not” much the same. In the last two months I’ve come to understand these albums as a necessary intervention in my habitus: There is a world out there and this is a helpful way to think through it, I observe to myself; not for the first time but with an inkling I’ve been playing professional dress-ups again.
I begin to open myself up to feelings; I’m ready to get burnt again. The numbness of experience and pretend expertise begins to recede as I reconnect with what I once thought of as minor.
You’re on holiday. You cross an interior urban walk-away, while outside underneath, a cavalcade of cars stop-start. You look at the glass, then glance down. You don’t want to go home; six weeks in hospital feels like a meagre price to pay for some pain diffusion.
“There’s a lot of nasty corners in our psyches,” Lenker tells Greene.
“I believe that pain and trauma is passed down throughout generations. Ancestral pain gets stored… Rather than shaming or ignoring more violent things, I try to look at it and address it and bring light and love into it.”
The albums contain elements of the above: In “Terminal Paradise”, death literally becomes a trail that leads to a flower, and in Two Hands’ “Cut My Hair,” the titular plea leads to this image: “You ask me to leave you, I won't/Not while the knife is at your throat”. This is to say nothing of the harrowing central image in “Shoulders”:
And the blood of the man
Who killed my mother with his hands
Is in me, it's in me, in my veins
Two Hands links the violent and the intimate, though the figures in Lenker’s verses rarely set out to harm: It is the only language they know. A gun is cast as “The Toy”, homelessness is partially rendered as the privileged’s moral failure in “Forgotten Eyes”:
Is it me who is more hollow as I'm quickly passing by?
And the poison is killing them, but then so am I
As I turn away
Disruption extends to the moments that summon you to the present moment: The harmonies at the end of “Terminal Paradise”, or the rootsy acoustic guitar solo that anchors “Shoulders,” but these moments don’t arise out of nowhere. The band — Lenker, Buck Meek, Max Oleartchik and James Krivchenia — patiently build tension so it’s the journey’s surprises that shatter the expected destination, instead of the final end point.
“I keep trying to break through the numbness that washes over everything, that keeps people from being awake, where you can feel that rush of clarity that you’re part of the earth and that you feel something that’s connected between all of us,” Lenker says to Tedder.
The final track of U.F.O.F., “Magic Dealer”, takes this thought process one step further:
Would it help, would it help to go deeper?
I am the photograph in you
The photograph in you
Still as the moment we're lying in right now
“Magic Dealer”, as a title, almost plays on the explanation for the name of Big Thief as a band: “A trickster or thief that borrows from the collective conscious, and regenerates ideas and integrates them into his or her identity,” according to Lenker and Meek (via Stereogum).
But the song goes beyond this, its gentle folk overtones emptied out by a wash of ambient sounds. Slightly louder than usual in a mix of this sort — another unexpected moment — the mix way to a bunch of other noises that don’t make much sense to describe. It feels like a hymn, the 80 seconds I think about the most while writing alone; the mind wonders elsewhere.
Your mum gives you a raspberry on the ear, the farting noise making you giggle stupendously; You imagine your brother’s mouth get washed out, never knowing but only sensing what you’ve done; you’ll find out in a month if the hurdles are still there, all those years later; you never were dumb enough to jump through the glass, the fanciful moment passed, its existential grimace goading you into positive change.
Those seconds are the point at which the two albums meet in the Big Thief discography, are the intimate terror of the unknown; the violence and joy of intimacy with our fellow humans, the moment when we realise that we are all connected and that we are nothing without our environments: Ambience is a distraction, this music is a gift.
It is written to plumb your personal depths and take you to the bottom of the well before pulling you back up again. It nags and nags until it enters your subconscious, like a UBD in a third-hand car waiting to be opened. Even when it hurts, it makes you feel alive.
History’s weights carry on. In less than three weeks I will be able to see the people I love again. The mess continues, possibilities open, and I kiss the water: When I leave here there is only going to be immense relief.
Other stuff I think you should check out:
“Sad Day” by FKA Twigs (Music, Young Turks) (Note: I haven’t listened properly to the new album from start to finish yet, so consider this an in-lieu-of recommendation to go and buy/listen to Magdalene, as I’ve listened to several tracks on repeat and they’re all excellent).
“The Feminist” by Tony Tulathimutte (Short Story, n+1)
“City of Tales” by Arash Nassiri (Short Film/Art, Vdrome)
In the first issue’s piece (“Let the mystery be”, published 3/11) I alluded to a Kieslowski quote from a Jonathan Romney Criterion Collection essay, suggesting he alleged his films weren’t literal.
In fact what I meant to say was that he denied there were metaphors in his films, and as Romney explains — among many other things — in his excellent essay, and that there was actually plenty of interest in the non-literal.
While the point I was making still stands about the lack of significant material metaphors in The Double Life of Veronique, it still alters meaning, so I thought I should acknowledge it (The article was updated earlier to reflect this).
Next Time (1/12)
In a complete 180, and in the search for lighter content, we’re going to look at the podcast “Everything is Alive”.