Review: Big Thief – ‘Capacity’
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Big Thief rushed onto the indie rock scene last year with the beautiful and accurately-titled Masterpiece, gaining the praise of many in the scene; from fans of similarly calm, lyrical singer-songwriters like Margaret Glaspy and Lucy Dacus, to those of more buzzy-sounding indie rock fiends such as Car Seat Headrest and Pinegrove. It’s rare that a debut LP is so widely lauded as Big Thief’s. Yet barely a year later, they’re back with a sophomore effort that’s anything but a slump. 2017’s Capacity is as spacious and ethereal as its predecessor, without being repetitive or overly experimental. The lyrics are as personal and specific, and it has just as many delicate, breathtaking moments. In an era during which fans constantly tweet artists about when they’ll next be releasing new music, Big Thief has nailed a second LP, one that fits beautifully alongside their previous record.
As on Masterpiece, frontperson Adrianne Lenker’s tenuous vocals lead the songs with wide-eyed lyrics like, “pressing his head to my temple/his head was a temple” on the album’s opener, “Pretty Things”. The goosebump-worthy fray of Lenker’s voice is an accurate reflection of the almost painfully distinct memories she sings about. She utters primal murmurs on tracks like “Shark Smile,” but then transitions to more linear lyrics and sounds. The album speaks of contrasting subjects, but is never at odds. While retaining style, Big Thief has grown into even more potent song content. The lyrics on Capacity are more personal and open than most on Masterpiece, and it makes for an album that’s better served by a focused, careful listen than a casual play as background noise.
Big Thief doesn’t shy away from the exploration of trauma, death, and pain. Even on more fast-paced tracks like “Black Diamonds” and “Mythological Beauty,” Lenker is open and candid; it would become almost unbearable at times if not for the human nature of it all. Lenker taps into the organic emotions inside listeners. She tells stories like family heirlooms, in some cases literally, with songwriting help from her sister Zoë on “Watering.” She sings of trauma and abuse in specific situations in “Coma” and “Watering,” opening up veins to the deepest of emotions. It’s haunting when she sings so personally, like of being “lost in your captivity/learning capacity,” because it cuts so deep and so clean.
Such tracks are tense and layered, while more open and joyful tracks—no less moving—are unfettered and more acoustic. Their talent spans from heavier tracks with more percussion and bass to warm, spiraling meditations on the relationships that define a life. Big Thief has made a pattern of naming songs for unspecified people and narrating in second person towards the various namesakes, and on Capacity, the most wholly poignant track is one of these: “Mary.” Unwittingly placed second-to-last on the tracklist, this song is a pure and stunning love ballad in which vivid lyrics tumble comfortably over a gentle piano. Lenker’s voice sounds like audio of the light that comes through slits in the curtains early in the morning. It’s simple and minimalistic, but rich in thought and deeply confessional when it lists the realities of life, and in lyrics like,“will you love me/like you loved me/and I’ll never ask for more?” It’s unashamedly human. Like many of the other songs on the album, it revels in its raw lyrics, but notably here, the emotions it conveys are love and joy, not pain and loss.
Lenker is an incredibly talented songwriter. She sings to and for the people who have affected her life, about the questions and multitudes inside of us all. The universal, grounding message is clear in the piercing stare of the man who adorns the album’s cover—Lenker’s uncle, holding her as a baby—and in the natural swing and deliberate nature of the songs. It’s even visible in the movement of Lenker and her counterparts when they perform, moving and swaying, sinking into the flow of the songs. Capacity embodies folk music when it hones in on its message of community. The people mentioned, the wise words to perhaps a younger self, the careful placement of self-reflection on one’s place in the world, the listings of everyday objects and occurrences that flow intuitively from Lenker, are all unmistakably knowing. Big Thief’s presence on social media is anything but common, but their message here of visceral human substance is as open and brave as documenting one’s entire life online, as do some artists.
This group has clearly had no difficulty following their debut LP; if anything, they’ve surpassed expectations. The members of Big Thief said they believed this could be a “summer album” and it is; in its gentleness; in the threads of truth and bravery; and in its nakedness. As the title suggests, Capacity is tender but powerful in its tour of the range of human emotions, leaving the listener with a yet-unshaped form of confidence. As Lenker sings on “Mythological Beauty,” “you’re all caught up inside/but you know the way.”