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Adrianne Lenker’s two new albums, intended to be played consecutively, perform a gradual disappearing act. The stripped-down acoustic laments on Songs start off lively then move toward more hushed tones. “Music for Indigo,” the first of two tracks on Instrumentals, subtracts the folk singer-songwriter’s voice, leaving only her guitar, chimes, and the sound of rain. On the closing “Mostly Chimes,” the guitar vanishes abruptly, too, and the chimes ring out alone for 11 more minutes. And then she’s gone.
Lenker’s band, Big Thief, is the rare folk-rock group to sound contemporary. Whether solo or with the band, her songs create a bent vernacular universe that’s both comforting and surreal, dotted with references to animals and plants and decay — a fabulist’s view of nature. Warm, woodsy, contemplative, marked by devotional concentration on acoustic guitar plucking, this aesthetic superficially resembles what we would now call cottagecore, but it crucially lacks the escapism, as Lenker indulges no domestic rural fantasies. Her songs instead teem with danger and magic. Cottagecore does not permit lyrics as menacing as “Wind that howls like a hound/wind that laughs like a clown.”
Lenker’s singing is key; it is an irritant that morphs into a hook. Small, sharp, off-putting, her breathy nasality can startle, like she’s singing through her teeth. Her voice provides the necessary bit of weirdness that ties everything else together. As Big Thief rock and jangle straightforwardly, music and vocals achieve a meeting of convention and whimsy — and hence an uncanny familiarity, as if you’ve heard the songs before and are struggling to recall the memory. Especially on their two excellent 2019 albums, U.F.O.F. and Two Hands, Big Thief capture the mournful grace of Lenker’s vision as well as a sense of melancholy that they can’t live fully in the world she’s invented. She’s not longing for an ideal, but for transcendence.
Like her previous Abysskiss (2018), Songs and Instrumentals are true solo albums, performed without the rest of Big Thief or any other band. As with many COVID-era singer-songwriter albums, Lenker recorded this music while isolated in a cabin in the woods. On Songs, she’s alone with her guitar. The material distills her usual mode, an attenuated refinement. While she’s always written enduring folk melodies, these glow with particular elegance, perhaps because the music’s austerity leaves little else to hold onto.
“Forwards Beckon Rebound” teeters between uplift and dejection, as her voice assumes a ghostly echo, taking grim comfort in the way the minor chords resolve. “Anything,” which reads on paper like a breakup song, prominently repeats the line “I wanna kiss kiss your eyes again” and glides over rolling guitar chords as radiant as autumn leaves; at the end, she utters a quiet, delighted “Woo!” Without denying pain, the song suggests that sadness can be expressed joyfully, that expressing a feeling can transform it, unexpectedly, into another one.
“Ingydar” features her most vivid imagery, starting with a horse resting in a barn (“Flies draw sugar from his head”) before conjuring a series of dissociated, equally syrupy scenes (“The juice of dark cherries covers my chin”). Whether interpreted as horror or homily (“Everything eats and is eaten,” she reminds you), the overwhelming lyrical richness balances the stark music. Meanwhile, Songs’s closing sequence is starker still. “My Angel” and “Not a Lot, Just Forever” sit inertly, relying on the often fallacious equation of slowness with profundity.
Instrumentals continues the contemplative mood. Particularly on “Music for Indigo,” the pattering interactions of rainfall, birds whistling, bells, and Lenker’s guitar (recorded so closely you can hear her shifting in her seat and her fingers brushing the strings) evoke the atmosphere of ambient electronic music more than any variety of folk. While these pieces soothe, they lack hallmarks tying them to Lenker specifically, whose artistic identity has previously inhered in the idiosyncrasy of her voice and lyrics.
For many listeners, acoustic folk music has become an unofficial pandemic soundtrack. Forlorn singer-songwriter albums have proliferated this year; even pop master Taylor Swift has joined the fray. There’s more to it than just the usual association between sadness and acoustic guitars — it’s how lonely these performers sound, strumming away in their isolation chambers. The empty spaces in the music reflect those in public life. Moving sequentially from songs to instrumentals to white noise, Lenker’s staged withdrawal over the course of her own album(s) provides the most salient example yet, going past sonic emaciation toward self-erasure.
In their rustic melancholy, Big Thief predicted this collective mood but not the spare forms it has taken. Their music crawls with dynamic contradiction, asserted and resolved through the band’s interaction (as they acknowledge in “Not,” the greatest song ever written about dialectics). By rocking so fiercely, they achieve a formal command potentially at odds with the fragile intimacy that characterizes Lenker’s writing; thus energized, that fragility is doubly poignant. Lenker’s ability to make old singer-songwriter tricks sparkle anew is further enhanced by her capacity as bandleader: while she dreams of another world, the band’s lilting riffs and gnarled distortions add physicality, making that world aurally real.
Thanks to the austerity of Songs and Instrumentals, her visions recede several steps into abstraction. What she gains in clarity she loses in weirdness, reducing that marvelous effect where her songs drift out from a forest that could be your subconscious. Instead, speaking directly, her unadorned voice is ultimately more conventional. Inertia is always a risk of the stripped-down acoustic mode, but not every sad singer-songwriter is alike; Phoebe Bridgers’s similarly quiet Punisher (2020) upends the guitar plucking with subtle electronic dissonances, while Lenker’s bone-dry chords on Songs land without tension. And when she disappears entirely on Instrumentals, the effect is merely conceptual; the 11 minutes of chimes that close, while indeed meaningful, do not grab the ear.
Then again, why should she complicate things? Raw emotion needs no framing device. Too quiet, too simple, and still these songs cut deep.
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