Album Review: Big Thief – Capacity

By on Wednesday, 7th June 2017 at 12:00 pm

Header photo by Shervin Lainez

Big Thief Capacity coverBrooklyn indie rock quartet Big Thief evidently believe in striking while the iron is hot. Just over a year ago, they released their debut album ‘Masterpiece’ to critical acclaim, including accolades from Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, and NPR’s Bob Boilen, among others. Fresh from a second consecutive appearance at SXSW back in March, lead singer/songwriter Adrianne Lenker and company have wasted no time following up on their initial success with a second LP titled ‘Capacity’.

Oddly, given the above-stated timeline, ‘Capacity’ sounds anything but rushed. Where ‘Masterpiece’ was raw and almost painfully gritty, picking at the scabs of past abrasions, ‘Capacity’ is more introspective and refined, more deliberately considered but nonetheless seething with emotion. Musically, its razor sharp guitar riffs slice clean and deep, while Lenker’s half-mumbled, half-yodeled vocals have become clearer and more prominent in the audio mix, allowing her lyrics to make a full and forceful impact.

What is most striking about ‘Capacity’, on first listen, is the juxtaposition of delicacy and stark brutality in Lenker’s fragile and tortured vocal melodies. In the album’s title track, her voice is emotionally distant, almost disassociated, as she sings “do what you want with me / lost in your captivity / looming capacity to make believe that everything is real . . .” Her metaphors become a bit more concrete in ‘Watering’, where the lines “he cut off my oxygen / and my eyes were watering / as he tore into my skin like a lion” are underlaid with a ominously serpentine guitar riff. The acoustic intimacy of ‘Coma’ implies a dark and guarded secret, with underlying lyrical allusions to violence and trauma and the haunting repeated lyric “you won’t recognise your house / will you recognise me?”.

The album’s first single ‘Mythological Beauty’ is vibrantly expansive, unwinding gradually over the course of five minutes’ duration. Despite its relative length, the song capsulises the emotional quality of the album as its lyrics progress from a past trauma, “you cut the flesh of your left thumb / using your boyfriend’s knife / seventeen, you took his cum / and you gave birth to your first life”, to Lenker’s revelation that “I have an older brother I don’t know / he could be anywhere”.


Ethereal current single ‘Mary’ (streaming above) could be seen as the matched pair to ‘Mythological Beauty’, with its poetic verbal imagery evoking a sense of melancholy reminiscence over a deeply heartwrenching piano motif. (You can read NPR’s fascinating interview with Lenker, where she discusses ‘Mary’ in more detail, right through here.) These longer tracks are where the plot line of the album, such as it is, reveals itself, while the shorter songs surrounding them provide both aural and emotional context. Early single ‘Shark Smile’ (streaming below) is constant and propulsive in its driving momentum, while its sister track ‘Great White Shark’ is brightly shuffling but warped and distorted. Final track ‘Black Diamonds’ is similarly upbeat in its combination of psych rock and classic country, once again belying the heavy sense of conflict in its lyrics.


On further consideration, the main evidence of Big Thief’s musical growth isn’t so much in Lenker’s lyrics on ‘Capacity’, but rather in the album’s impeccable synthesis of lyrics and music. Lenker’s verbal expressions are more poetry than prose, more allusive imagery than concrete plot, and Big Thief’s musical settings are accordingly ambiguous. There are very few clear-cut choruses here, few established or expected chord sequences, and no firm song forms to latch onto. Rather, we hear a free-flowing collection of sonically compelling and delicately balanced musical motifs somehow synchronised with Lenker’s disjointed, yet extraordinarily powerful, vignettes of love and loss.


Big Thief’s second album ‘Capacity’ is due out this Friday, the 9th of June, on Saddle Creek Records. They toured the UK in back in February, but if you missed them then, you’ll have more chances this summer, when they visit Europe with Conor Oberst. You can find a full list of Big Thief’s upcoming shows on their official Facebook. For more TGTF coverage of Big Thief, including a live review from way back in 2015, follow this link.

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