Big Thief’s Quiet Innovation

Brooklyn-based Big Thief have amassed both a devoted following and critical acclaim not by playing the loudest, but rather by developing a consistent, soft-spoken sound. Such a low-key approach might seem strange for a band that entered the indie scene with a debut album entitled Masterpiece – but Big Thief’s ambition comes unconventionally, through quiet innovation and subtle emotional resonance. And on their sophomore LP, Capacity, Big Thief have raised the ante significantly.

For one, the reverb-soaked guitars of Masterpiece have developed into fully-realized soundscapes on Capacity, with a sharper instrumentation palette helping to create a wider array of moods. “Shark Smile”, the album’s second track, opens immediately with a screeching, dissonant guitar wail, offering an abrasive introduction to the album and recalling the likes of My Bloody Valentine and Sonic Youth. Buck Meek’s shoegaze-sounding guitar effortlessly ducks and weaves through the song’s choruses and perfectly compliments Adrianne Lenker’s delicate vocals. On “Great White Shark”, a relatively tame acoustic line builds into a complex climax driven by synth and high-pitched guitar. And “Mary”, the album’s penultimate track, sees Lenker trading her melodies back and forth with a melancholy piano part, eventually drifting off into silence. All told, Big Thief showcases impressive musical growth on their latest release, stretching the limits of their folk-tinged style.

Sinking in after consideration and, in some cases, repeated listens, Capacity‘s melodies are characteristically slow-burners. In fact, “slow burn” appropriately describes much of Big Thief’s approach. The album’s 11 tracks are generally downtempo, seeking to spark emotion through a measured, drawn-out style. Lenker’s lyrical delivery, too, carries a sort of visceral force, with the weight of each individual word sinking into the gut of the listener. “Do what you want with me / lost in your captivity”, she sings on the album’s title track. Ultimately, Capacity is an album about Lenker’s sense of debasement in her personal life, and her sparse, broken delivery of such powerful phrases only increases the precision of her ideas. 

Lenker’s lyrical content has grown markedly more introspective – where Masterpiece featured detached, almost ambiguous stories, Capacity sees Lenker using events from her own life as the basis of her songwriting. For the first time, she directly addresses her troubled upbringing, spanning from her parent’s separation to her peripatetic and ungrounded home life. “Mythological Beauty” tackles this childhood pain head-on, reflecting on memories of a near-death experience as a five-year-old, her older brother she’s never met, and her difficult relationship with her mother. “Watering”, by the same token, deals with a deeply intimate story of assault, shedding light on how trauma has impacted her life. While thematically heavy, though, Lenker’s lyrical style remains subdued, as if she attempts to reckon with her memories with calm rather than outrage. Perhaps part of Big Thief’s appeal, then, lies in their ability to tell a story with the familiarity – and authenticity – of a personal conversation.

With tour dates announced for this spring, Big Thief is an artist to watch in 2018. Check out Capacity and their NPR Tiny Desk Concert.


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