When I saw the 80 minute length and massive name of the new Big Thief album, my cynicism got the best of me. A quick, near-empty black and white sketch on the cover further confuses the assuming asshole in my head: big album needs big artwork, right? I saw that large-scale magazines were ALREADY giving this album extremely high reviews before it was released to the public. I texted my friend, curious as to what could possibly be so interesting about this massive record. She responded with a quote that would define the next month: “hey man, let those pasty basement fairies do their thing.”
Lead singer Adrienne Lenker starts the album with an arbitrary statement “Ok?”
The intro, “Change” is a hug. A hopeful one. Maybe change isn’t a bad thing? Maybe it’s beautiful, “like the leaves, like a butterfly.” Things change and death comes. Lenker is okay with this. Maybe I am too. Shit, I am already feeling sentimental. What are you doing to me, Big Thief?
Pulling me into a warm hug surrounded by sparkly fireflies and roaming deer, Big thief also offers acceptance to a presence much more dense than mine: time. The ever-present man in a double-breasted pinstripe suit holds his pocket watch; he points at it, showing that time is constantly taking its toll on us. Big thief looks back at him – looks back at time passing – with open arms of acceptance, bringing us comfort in simplicity throughout Dragon. It can be difficult to approach heavy topics with humor, but Lenker’s lyrics read like a wise, 200-year-old being with a goofy approach to the meaninglessness of life.
As the satisfying jaw-harp bounces on “Spud Infinity,” Lenker bounces back and forth from mature topics to mundane objects, comparing our stressful skinmobiles to a simple potato Knish. Her ease doing this through the whole album is a testament to Lenker’s fluid yet sharp songwriting.
“When I say celestial
I mean extra-terrestrial
I mean accepting the alien you’ve rejected in your own heart
When I say heart I mean finish
The last one there is a potato knish
Baking too long in the sun of spud infinity
When I say infinity I mean right now
Kiss the one you are right now
Kiss your body up and down other than your elbows”
The larger-scope, magic-infused topics near the start of the album – time, celestial bodies, death – are ambitious, but it is vital to the record that they are paired with smaller-scope, intimate affairs. After all, the celestial bodies Lenker sings of would be meaningless without the little animals that flail around beneath them.
“Certainty” could turn a cold, dark heart into grandma’s warm pie. It is one of the loveliest proclamations of feelings for another I have ever heard (“For you, I am a child, believing you lay beside me sleeping on a plane In the future”). Lenker’s country twang intensifies on this song; it is scattered throughout the album, warm and tasty like a tenderly crafted treat. This sound makes the weirdness and nostalgia on Dragon even more intimate in songs with personal stories like “Red Moon” and “Blue Lightning.” Big Thief has completely ignored how uncool country music is right now. With bro-country folks like Florida Georgia Line and Blake Shelton infesting the radios at our local grocery stores, people on first dates everywhere can commonly be heard saying: “I like every genre but country” when asked what music they’re into. It is easy to forget how satisfying a little twang can wiggle into one’s ears; past alt-country folks like Jason Molina of Songs: Ohia and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billie made brilliant art out of their rural self-loathing, and Big Thief is carrying on the torch for country’s salvation.
Dragon is a big, slow-cooked stew of many flavors: the base folk stylings are the braised beef, spiced with savory introspection. The indie-rock turn that the band takes in the middle of the tracklist with “Little Things” is a flowing broth of 90’s influenced, swirly walls of sound. The fairytale-like curiosity that characterizes Dragon is sprinkled in here, especially on “Blurred View,” Big Thief’s otherworldly take on trip-hop. “I am the water rise/the waterfall/filling up your eyes when you give me the call/I run for you/run for you.” It is as if Lenker reads a prophecy; her critical moment in her own fantasy, not much different from Frodo’s mythical clash with The Eye of Sauron in The Lord of the Rings.
Eight years ago In the band’s debut album Masterpiece, an appalled Lenker proclaimed that wherever she was “smelled like piss and beer.” Dragon New Warm Mountain smells like earthy campfires and potions, and whatever elves and fairies smell like. If Dragon New Warm Mountain is a place we can picture, the latter half of the album consists of the folk tales that take place on the green spring grass here. Lenker zooms in on the beauty of real things: a laughing fox on “Promise is a Pendulum” and maple cherry leaves falling on “12,000 Lines”. Small ballads like “No Reason” give a gentle tap on the shoulder with warm, life affirming lines.
“Come together for a moment
Look around and dissolve
Like a feeling, like a flash
Like a fallin’ eyelash on your sweater
Threading future through the past”
Lenker wears her influences on her sleeve as songs become quieter – it is easy to hear Elliott Smith here; the moments of fresh craftsmanship give a delightful spin to her sound. Drilling drum machines come out of nowhere on “Wake Me Up to Drive.” Little pokes in the instrumentation loosen my brain in a knotted spot, untying the tangle of stress. Big Thief in all their hopeful magic dismantle the accepted constructs of country-leaning indie-folk. Usually this genre consists of a man who has been defeated by something, with tears in his beer, and a 35 minute tracklist. In contrast, Big Thief conjures a reassuring, romantic outlook on the wonders around them. Flutes fly up and down like the sparrow outside and Lenker’s soft voice is comforting, of the same family as the death-defying, benevolent deer that shows up every now and then.
After a very short 80 minutes, the final track, Blue Lightning, comes to an end. A band member says “what should we do now?” It’s almost like I forgot that these are normal people with normal lives. That is the effect Dragon has, for a moment it feels like they are channeling some kind of fairytale enchantment. But Big Thief is just a band, and this is just a collection of songs. The cover is just a sketch of animals at a campfire. Even with the unstoppable forces of time and death, we still get up and bake our potatoes and dance with our fingers and make campfires. Dragon points out the magic of the mundane; Aren’t we just a bunch of stupid animals trying to find some kind of happiness?