Written by Erika Kindsfather
Big Thief’s sophomore album Capacity, released June 9, 2017, emphasizes the quartet’s faculty for creating narratives that solicit the senses with resolve. Kicking off the album with “Pretty Things”, Adrianne Lenker’s vocals speak softly with a gentle vibrato that establishes a haunting, yet folky vibe, heightened by the accompanying hypnotic acoustic guitar rhythm. She addresses a named lover, singing “There’s a woman inside of me/ there’s one inside of you too,” a lyric Lenker explained in a Stereogum interview (h/link ) as a “mantra” signifying her “desire to equate femininity with strength”. This holds weight in the album consistently, as lyrical moments grappling with trauma come forward with a distinct force and radical certainty.
“Shark Smile” follows the story of a car accident where the narrator’s lover’s life is taken. In contrast with the macabre theme, where the narrator pleads to be taken from life with her lover, the drums and guitar rhythm formulate the familiar sound of a driving rock song. Perhaps it’s the catchy chorus or dreadful irony, but “Shark Smile” is my favorite song on the album. The title track follows, with heavier electric guitar accompanying dreamy vocals spewing even dreamier lyrics. Everything about this song sounds certain; the poetic verses delivered like a ballad, the roughness of the electric guitar, down to the soft touches angelic background vocals.
Distant, drowsy guitar and drums introduce “Watering,” a song of intense visceral description of a violent assault. Lenker’s breathy vocals carry crushingly into the equally intimate track “Coma,” where she sings “you can wake up, momma/ from your protective coma” against a quiet guitar and gentle drumbeat. The instrumentals of both songs work you into a trance, while the lyrics push through difficult moments of violence and recovery. In all the intensity, Lenker’s voice remains radically soft, and invites one to reflect on the marriage of opposites, telling trauma through whispers.
“Mythological Beauty” is a lesson in storytelling, with Lenker addressing her mother. Her vocals move from their usual softness to a strained scream at the moments she describes her mother at seventeen putting her first-born child up for adoption and later, holding the singer’s bleeding head after a traumatic accident she suffered at five, her mother twenty-seven.
Buck Meek’s summery acoustic guitar introduces “Haley,” a tune dripping with bittersweet sentimentality. Lenker sings, “ Anyway, you walk around/ Anywhere that you are goin’/ If you ever wanna come back/ You know my arms are always open.” This hits especially hard following “Objects,” a deeply percussive song describing a person’s moments of independence.
“Mary” is pure ballad, with Lenker’s voice almost in complete isolation, against a dreamy synth hum and somber piano. “Black Diamonds” concludes the album, starting out with cleverly uneven drum and guitar beats, leading into a purely rock chorus featuring classic electric guitar. Overall, the album’s intimate lyrics and crafty mix of instrumental styles solicit a high level of emotional engagement from the listener, who is fed stories through Lenker’s ethereal and often perfectly contradictory vocals and driven through heartbeat drums and versatile guitar.
“Capacity” is available for streaming on Spotify and for purchase on Big Thief’s Bandcamp and iTunes. Big Thief is playing at Bar Le Ritz PDB on June 27. Tickets $13/15 at door. Available HERE.