This is an album review—of sorts. Good luck.
INTRODUCTION: MY PERSONAL HISTORY WITH THE ALBUM
Feeling as if I’ve sat through infinite variations on the theme of Indie Folk Group (guitars, voice, bass, drums), I was fascinated to find myself fascinated by Big Thief. The organic sound of their album Capacity (2017), which I would have otherwise dismissed as respectable yet obsolete, [i] somehow captivated a part of me I didn’t even know I had.
What is it that made Big Thief exceptional? Countless hours of practice? Talent in the magnitude of millions? Academic education in music—which all four band members share—in one of the world’s foremost colleges? (Berklee.) Maybe a miracle of production and sound engineering? I really wouldn’t know. I was brought into their Capacity world after listening to the song ‘Pretty Things’. First time I gave the whole album a listen, I was underwhelmed. After a few more listens through and through, although I didn’t dislike it, I was still uninterested. Months had to go by for me to give it another go—craving to hear ‘Pretty Things’ in a long drive, then letting the rest of the album play. But this time something inside me was magnetized. Today, a few months and dozens of listens later, I’m led to writing this article.
For most indie folk albums, my personal metric of success is sonic intimacy; when I’m listening to them play and, if I close my eyes, it feels as if I’m there beside them in the studio. In Capacity, instead, Big Thief takes me to a hyper-room of their own design, where laws of nature have been slightly bent for my benefit. The overall experience resembles the buzzing sweetness of a “sugar rush”, mixed with the saltiness of tears.
[i] Let’s face it, fellow guitarists: this is the age of… synths! (Cue in: Ominous electronic music).
INTRODUCTION: THE ALBUM’S OWN HISTORY
Capacity came out in 2017. Big Thief’s debut was Masterpiece (2016),an album that made quite the critical splash: Tracks warm but also vibrant and sometimes all over the place, lyrics of shocking imagery and swooning beauty, solid rock moments of good-old fun, and, finally, a touch of darkness. In contrast, Capacity was much more contained; it was also immeasurably poetic. Then, in 2019, followed two albums—both in the same year—which the band describes as related: U.F.O.F., with a title that reveals the album’s strangeness and simultaneous relatability, and Two Hands which is the more forest-y relative. Both of them enjoyed many favorable reviews, and, in my opinion, deserved every word.[ii]
[ii] Sometimes, I wonder how come these guys aren’t more famous. How come they’re not the center of every indie folk discussion today? To be fair, though, Big Thief probably already enjoys as much fame as their genre allows. They have gathered an impressive list of accolades. For example, here’s a list just for Capacity.
THE SUGAR RUSH / THE CONSTANT HUSH
Vital to this article—I say, well aware that it probably doesn’t reflect the reader’s opinion—are the lyrics. Adrianne Lenker, singer and songwriter for Big Thief, builds autofictional worlds of rare, if not singular, beauty. Below, you will find me elaborating on the lyrics disproportionately, sometimes at the expense of music. That’s because, for me, lyrical content is the focal point when experiencing Capacity.
In no way am I trying to undermine the role of sound in Capacity. The Brooklyn-based quartet boasts masterful musicians.[iii] Each instrument is present subtly but never lacks substance. There is no fluff and flourish in the licks. The players never call undue attention to their persons, and they seem well acquainted with silence. In instances, there is electrifying dissonance in the soundscape, but nowhere exaggeration.
Surely, when giving credit for sound, it would be unfair to omit the band’s producer, Andrew Sarlo. Either way, in Capacity, the band gives its listeners a sense of absolute control in what it’s doing—a band on top of its game—, and the subsequent success in the underground scene only validates this assumption.
[iii] The following is pure speculation, but I can think of two ways in which the band was influenced by their Berklee studies: a) Their academic training blended perfectly with the art and craft of their raw folk indie sound. b) Said training offered a signpost for a place they wanted to stay far away from. Either way, formal studies—especially in an institution of such high status—must have been seminal.
Here’s where the really interesting part begins for me. (Here’s also where it probably ends for you, reader.) Here come the lyrics.
Lenker hardly ever leaves her characters nameless: Mathew, Evelyn, Hayley, Mary, etc. This is a pattern we find not only in Capacity, but also throughout Big Thief’s discography, with the protagonist’s name often giving the track its title, or occupying its first lyrics. Yet, it seems as if the characters are named with no agenda. The names rarely (or never) carry symbolic meaning. On the contrary—regardless of whether they refer to real people or not—, it seems that their purpose is to inspire mundane life into the characters; to make them real like our friends and family are real. The name of you father or your sister rarely expresses deeper etymological truths about that person’s essence, or their role in your life. And still, those magic syllables ring in your ears with special significance.
Track #7, Mythological Beauty, is the story of the singer and her young mother. According to the autobiographical lyrics, her mom gave birth to her at 22; arguably, a girl herself. Thus:
“There is a child inside you who’s trying / To raise a child in me”.
This convolution of motherhood between child and parent, almost recursive in nature, perfectly encapsulates Capacity’s deconstructive approach to hierarchies of two.[iv] For example: Mother-Child (see ‘Mythological Beauty’), Stalker-Victim (see ‘Watering’), Pureness-Deflowering (see ‘Black Diamonds’), and above all else: Feminine-Masculine (see ‘Pretty Things’, which gets a separate section below).
Through Lenker’s introverted “sugar rush” / “constant hush”, reality is re-examined. Her stories display an infinite, borderline psychedelic, potential for revisiting the human condition.
[iv] The album cover of Capacity is a photograph of Lenker as a newborn baby, held in her uncle’s arms. Her uncle is 14 years old at the time, and looks uncannily like adult Lenker—and also like the baby in his arms. Note that the uncle is, well, male. Arguably, it is the perfect cover photo. If, by any chance, you make it to the end of this article, return to that comment and reread.
The first three songs perfectly demonstrate Lenker’s talent in literary creation: To construct whole worlds with laconic lyrics as her building blocks. At the same time, these songs conveniently establish for us the recurring themes of Capacity.
#1. ‘PRETTY THINGS’ (or what I call: THE FEMININE)
It all starts with the darkest and loveliest song of the album, which could be read as a statement on femininity, masculinity, and their intertwining. For some, the feminine and the masculine are two sides of a coin; for others, they’re ends on a spectrum. ‘Pretty Things’ views the two terms more like points on a mobius strip.[v]
The male protagonist, represented by the name “Mathew”, finds nurture and warmth in the violence he wreaks while making love to the singer. She in turn croons: “I will warm you” and “I’ve got lips like sugar”. At the same time, she warns,
“Don’t take me for a fool / there’s a woman inside of me / there’s one inside of you too”.
In Lenker’s next lines we find honesty, beauty, ugliness, and gender role philosophy:
“There is a meeting in my thighs / Where in thunder and lightning / Men are baptized / In their anger and fighting / Their deceit and lies / I’ve got lips like sugar.”
The singer incarnates total subjugation, and yet it is evident that, if there ever was a hierarchy between the feminine and the masculine, then she is the one in control. And if this hierarchy feels paradoxically entangled—the two terms on top of one another—then the last line deconstructs the hierarchy completely. The singer lets us in on the secret: namely, that “She”, meaning the woman present in both of them, “don’t always do / Pretty things”. But if there’s a sinister side to that woman, and there’s also a woman inside the man… And so on, ad infinitum. [vi]
[v] Incidentally, that was also Pitchfork’s simile of choice for the guitar lines in U.F.O.F.
[vi] Notably, depending on the perspective, the last line could also be read like a veiled threat.
#2. ‘SHARK SMILE’ (or what I call: LOVE AND DEATH)
The second song/story is about two women[vii] and their reckless road trip: One is the singer; the other is “Evelyn” with the “shark smile”, intriguing and inviting. The singer is unable to resist her. They run off together in Evelyn’s “yellow van”.
In ‘Shark Smile’, the magic of worldbuilding can be narrowed down to an utterly simplistic chorus:
“…And she said woo / Baby / Take me… / And I said woo / Baby / Take me too…” [viii]
Every chorus is the same, and the musical vibe remains upbeat and feel-good throughout the track; a generic indie-pop affair. But it’s the verses that set the story up in a certain way, so that the choruses with each repetition end up painting a bleaker picture.
In the first cycle, Evelyn the “vampire” finds our singer in a “bad time”, and the latter wants nothing more than to run off with her. In the second cycle, it is Evelyn who is having the “bad time”, her shark smile turning into a “part” one, doing 90 mph in a “dead end dream”—still, they ask to be taken by each other. In the third one, on the peak of this wild fling,[ix] comes the bloody climax: The car crashes and Evelyn dies a gory death, by being “impaled”. In the final repetition of the chorus, once again the women ask of each other: “baby, take me”—but this time, arguably, Evelyn asks to be taken back to the land of the living. Our protagonist, having had the misfortune to survive, asks to be spirited away alongside her dead lover.
The blood—of Evelyn, or of the singer, or maybe there’s no difference at all—is a recurring theme in the album. In ‘Shark Smile’, its (implied) presence represents death; in Mythological Beauty it’s innocence and motherhood; in Watering it’s sensitivity and lust. In those crimson droplets, I find Lenker’s all-encompassing worldview reflected: the feminine and the masculine, life and death, the universe.
[vii] Here we assume that the singer-character is herself female, which might be a problematic assumption in an album like Capacity, where gender and sexuality are so fluid. The singer constantly refers to her person as “I”, leaving her gender vague. However, there are some indirect clues, like in ‘Pretty Things’ (see “there is a meeting in my thighs / where in… men are baptized”).
[viii] If there are sexual undertones in the line “take me”, one can only guess—and I guess that there are.
[ix] The singer tells us that “Evelyn’s kiss was oxygen”.
#3. ‘CAPACITY’ (or what I call: THE UNIVERSE)
Then, of course, there’s the homonymous song, ‘Capacity’. I found the core of this song summed up in a story Lenker shared in an interview. Lenker had a friend, a short story writer and novelist, whose head constantly brimmed with a hundred stories. When Lenker asked her how? —how did she retain all that information? —her friend answered that she believed humans had an infinite learning capacity (and thus the origin of that lyric). Lenker rejects a life obsessed with details; like her friend, she lets the stream of the universe flow through her.
‘Capacity’ is an otherworldly song. This quality becomes most evident in the final verse, where the singer offers us an image seemingly unrelated to the rest of the story, which stands apart like a painting in a movie frame.
There is a castle that stands / High in the canyon / The blue knights are crying together /
A child is holding my hand / She is directing / The red crystal pine with a feather.
It’s not just the content of the song that is otherworldly, but its origin as well: The verses, according to Lenker, are actually based on a dream she had. Nevertheless, there is great sense to be found in its non-sense.
In the second verse, the song breaks the centuries-old convention of lovers being petty and possessive towards each other. The singer recounts: “slipping away from the party / totally vacant / everyone gone from their bodies”. And then, outside, she finds her lover “kissing another”. Even worse, it turns out that the woman receiving the kisses “was a friend” of the singer. And yet, instead of picking a fight, or suffering an emotional breakdown, the singer hugs the guilty and describes her as “a beautiful figure”. Then, in the chorus, an almost psychedelic epiphany descends upon her:
“There are no enemies.”
Not to say that everything is blissful in the story; there is darkness around the light of the lyrics. For example, Lenker recognizes that she is “lost” in her lover’s “captivity”, and that they’re “make-believing everything”. A pessimistic note. Yet the overall sense is not one of imprisonment, but one of brilliant catharsis. As Lenker states in the first verse:
“Flight is a beautiful word / Flowered with consonance / That’s what I’ll follow / Forever.”
A BRIEF[x] RECAP FOR THE REST OF THE ALBUM
‘Watering’ tells the story of the singer being followed home by either a very sensitive stalker, or her role-playing partner who relishes in hurting her.[xi] ‘Coma’, with its mesmerizing intro, imagines the waking up from, well, a coma, which I interpret as an ode to body and memory. The tracks ‘Great White Shark’, ‘Objects’, and I’m tempted to include ‘Hayley’ as well, are less direct: they have a great sense of rhythm resembling children’s songs, but the lyrical content is vaguer than the rest of the album—indie variants of beat poetry. ‘Mythological Beauty’ (the emotional centerpiece of the album according to Pitchfork, is a love letter from Lenker to her post-adolescent mother. The closing track, ‘Black Diamonds’, with its atmospherically distorted guitar in the chorus, discusses, among other things, the vicious cycle of losing and taking virginity.
Finally, even though I refuse to single out any track as my ‘favorite’, I must admit that ‘Mary’ is for me the most remarkable. Either in its soft studio version, or in its groovier live version, ‘Mary’ is a track of staggering beauty where friendship transcends platonic love. Lenker’s slow flow weaves words into a lullaby-inducing pattern; a flowery lyrical outburst which never fails to move me, even when I can’t logically grasp it. The universal stream, the one that began in the title track ‘Capacity’, here turns into a river.
[x] The brevity feels almost profane in its reductionism, but I grit my teeth and write on.
[xi] Somehow, Big Thief manages to turn this disturbing scenario into one of the album’s most gorgeous songs, with warm wailing guitars and vocals.
This is an album to fall in love with. This is an album to buy in vinyl format even though you don’t own a turntable. This is an album that could double as a book of poetry.