A good friend of mine listened to Big Thief’s latest album, Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You, at my recommendation. He texted me after: “I thought it was going to be too honky-tonk for me at first, but actually, it was really great.”
I think he’s right on both counts. Big Thief’s music is, indeed, a little bit country. One might describe it as an example of “freak folk” or “New Weird America,” both monikers for the indie-folk-Americana fusion genre that includes musicians such as Vashti Bunyan, Joanna Newsome, and Sufjan Stevens. Dragon—more than previous works in the band’s discography—experiments with genre and form (see electronic-influenced tracks such as “Heavy Bend” and “Blurred View”), and the lyrics run the gamut from somber to playful (consider my personal favorite track, “Spud Infinity”).
On “Spud Infinity,” lead singer and guitarist Adrianne Lenker sings, “Ash to ask and dust to dusk, a dime a dozen, aren’t we just?” The song begins with the sort of existential inquiry that sends the listener spinning into the ether. But what comes next is a welcome tether to the tangible. Lenker turns the “dime a dozen” phrase on its head, singing “but a dozen dimes can buy a crust of garlic bread.” The big, unanswerable questions recede into the background, and the listener is reminded of all the comforts of home. The body, to collective relief, comes back.
Spud infinity is a glorious combination of words. It’s also representative of Big Thief’s broader thematic project on this album. The song—with its near-parodic use of the fiddle and boinging jaw-harp—manages to capture something cosmic. Yet it also reminds us that we live with ants and baked potatoes and elbows, and that none of this beauty should be taken too seriously.
I’m aware that all this could make the album sound twee, and it does occasionally draw on a certain cottagecore sensibility. But Big Thief’s depictions of nature are often far darker and more complex than the images typically associated with that aesthetic. “Sparrow,” the album’s sixth song and one of the lead singles, weaves a chilling narrative. It begins with the indelible vision of a screaming eagle, and then moves on to the Book of Genesis. The song is a subversion of the Garden of Eden story in which Adam outright tattles on Eve for her bad behavior with the serpent, saying, “She has the poison inside her, / she talks to snakes and they guide her.” It’s a song that examines patriarchy and betrayal, but it also reaches beyond those predictable themes to reimagine the archetype of Eve. For Big Thief, accusing a young woman of being guided by snakes is a kind of sideways compliment.
Perhaps the album’s most disquieting song is “Simulation Swarm,” a drum-driven track in which Lenker and guitarist Buck Meek consider the dissociation of contemporary life. I’m not sure if they’re writing about the Internet, precisely, but they contrast images of the physical (blood, the fever of a child, the inviting arms of a long-lost brother) with things more ethereal and detached (the “drone of fluorescence,” the “prism key”). What the hell, you may ask, is a prism key? I don’t know, other than the fact that it sounds vaguely planetary and techie.
While I’ll never be able to grasp every one of Big Thief’s opaque metaphors, I still feel something when I listen. Which is reassuring, since the song expresses the fear of feeling nothing at all, of being wholly disconnected from the animal world. Listening to the album, though, I find that it’s hard to dwell on this note of anxiety for long. Big Thief certainly doesn’t. Rather, throughout this twenty-song composition, they continue to seek rapture in everything that they can smell, taste, hear, see, and touch. That leaves a lot to be joyous about.