A second album of the year for Big Thief, and there’s probably enough time to fit in another one if they felt like it. In the last four years, along with pretty much constant touring, Big Thief have now released four albums, and Adrianne Lenker (the band’s frontwoman and songwriter) also released a solo album in 2018.
In interviews, the band have talked about their new album Two Hands as a twin to U.F.O.F., their critically-acclaimed album released earlier this year. The songs for both albums were written during the same period, and as the band have said elsewhere, where the feel of U.F.O.F. is ethereal and celestial, the subject of Two Hands is more down to earth. There’s certainly less live production than U.F.O.F.. The more polished studio production here is more in keeping with their previous albums, and this might also explain why U.F.O.F. feels more other-worldy and Two Hands feels much closer to home.
The album opener definitely gives that impression. With references to home, refuge and a feeling of insulation from the outside world, Rock and Sing is a pared-back lullaby that sets the tone of the album. The theme of vulnerability, protection and sometimes violent imagery weave their way through a lot of the album. While this type of imagery isn’t necessarily new ground for Big Thief, the lyrics here are more visceral than you hear on previous records.
The chorus of the next track continues the lyrical theme: “The wound has no direction/ Everybody needs a home and deserves protection”. Forgotten Eyes is the first single from the album and the first time the full-band is on show driving the rhythm.
Shoulders and Not, which feature later in the album, are other loud and jarring indie-rock standouts. This is where they really allow themselves to let go. With the fuzzy bass, guitar licks and emotionally charged lyrics, you can see why Big Thief are sometimes described as grunge-rock. Not, is incessant and powerful. Lenker is almost screaming at one point as the song crescendos into a discordant, bliss-out guitar solo. The song is like a mantra describing someone’s internal struggle of looking for answers and not comprehending what or where they could be.
What is exceptional is the ability of Big Thief to blend this indie-grunge-rock sound with the more down-tempo indie-folk, and modulate quiet and loud dynamics throughout the album. Tracks like Two Hands and Replaced are hooky and rhythmic, whilst Those Girls and Wolf punctuate the album with quieter and intimate moments. The latter is possibly my favourite on the album and features an acoustic guitar that doesn’t make an appearance on many other tracks.
The closing track, Cut My Hair, returns to the images of home described in the opening track, in her kitchen being slowly rocked to sleep. The references are similar but the close feels less optimistic than the opening, laying bare the confusion and uncertainty that permeates the whole piece.
With Two Hands, Big Thief have produced their most consistent and compelling album to date with a personality that sets it apart from previous releases. It’s saying a lot, but I think there’s much more to come from Big Thief, and we probably won’t have to wait very long to hear it.