Big Thief 'Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You' Album Review by Mimi Kenny for Northern Transmissions

4AD

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Big Thief

Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You

For a band that titled their debut album Masterpiece, Big Thief do a great job of staying modest. In just a few years, they went from being a promising new act building national buzz to gaining early admittance to the Indie Folk Hall of Fame. But there’s never been any sense that they’re self-conscious of maintaining an image or relevancy. That lack of pretense also allows their music to always feel honest, even if some songs are better than others.

But it’s impossible to find any weak spots on the band’s fifth album, Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You. That cumbersome title is the only artistic decision here that feels misguided. A more appropriate route to take would have been just going self-titled. If there’s ever been an album that feels like a band giving its mission statement, it’s this.

There are 20 tracks on this double album, all worthy of their own glowing reviews. It’s epic but intimate, with lyrics concerned with extraterrestrial matters as well as romantic attachment. And the delivery can range from scorching to balming without ever feeling incongruous. On “Certainty,” you have Adrianne Lenker harmonizing with guitarist Buck Meek in a countrified duet. Later, “Flower of Blood’s” dreamy but distorted guitars and ramshackle drums suggest a rawer version of Slowdive. Sometimes, the band is going all in together, like on “Little Things.” Other times, it’s as stripped-back as Lenker singing and finger-picking, like on the self-recorded “Promise is a Pendulum.”

The lack of cohesion on this album is the cohesion. The songs work together because they feel so distinct from one another. Even if you can draw similarities between tracks, such as the bluegrass vibes of “Spud Infinity” and “Red Moon,” each distinguish themselves with memorable moments like a jaw harp accompaniment from Lenker’s brother on the former and a mid-song shoutout to Lenker’s grandmother on the latter. There’s also enough space between the types of songs that when a sound is revisited, it feels like both an encore and a new experience.

Four different recording sessions with four different engineers produced 45 songs, with the band going from upstate New York to Topanga Canyon, California to the Colorado Rockies to Tucson, Arizona. If there was ever a time during those five months that the band felt like they had hit a wall, it doesn’t show. It’s not the most remarkable of feats for all the songs on a 20- track album to be good. What is remarkable is for them all to sound inspired. The 25 that didn’t make the cut have to be worth hearing if they came from these sessions.

The band also understands that inspiration is borne from curiosity, in finding new ways to embrace your surroundings. Lyrics are often about being enraptured by nature and seeing it as magic, like on the title track, which finds Lenker’s warm vocals contrasted by shattering icicles for texture. They can go from the microcosmic of thinking about ants to the macrocosmic of thinking about the entirety of the universe and sound in touch with both. Of course, albums about being in touch with nature and the self run a major risk of coming across as pretentious and self-important, especially when they’re this long. Dragon is often earnest, but it’s never pretentious. The lyrics are eagerly direct and all the more beautiful for it. It’s an album that starts with a song called “Change” with analogies like the leaves falling and butterflies emerging from their cocoons. That may sound clichéd, but the band gives them such sincerity, it sounds poetic.

And the collaborative chemistry between the members has never been more apparent. Big Thief has talked about only making decisions on a unanimous level, and it feels like everyone here is on equal standing, with no rules but to work together. Drummer James Krivchenia came up with the project concept, but it sounds as though he wanted that to be a blank canvas for them to all drop their ideas onto. Much of the album sounds recorded live, and you can sense just how much greater it is because of it. If you’re hoping to see the band on their upcoming tour, you should probably get your tickets now.

If there has to be an MVP, though, it’s Lenker. All of her talents as a frontwoman were already apparent, but here, they’re amplified to such a degree that it makes nearly everything before it feel like the dress rehearsal. She’s not performing elaborate vocal pyrotechnics (though she does have an impressive intensity, even in the quieter moments), but she captivates through how much she feels every word she says. Unhealthy romantic attachment is a recurring theme, and a potentially trite line like “I wanna be the vapor gets you high,” becomes something spellbinding thanks to Lenker.

Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You is an album that keeps on giving, from a band that does the same and asks for nothing in return but to be appreciated as the thoughtful artists they always have been. It’s an album for all occasions that also feels perfect for here and now. Will their next album top it? Perhaps, but Big Thief don’t sound worried about competing with anyone, let alone themselves.

Pre-Order Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You by Big Thief HERE