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New Music: Big Thief

By Troy Hasselman, October 29 2019 —

Hype is a double-edged sword. On one hand, there’s the elevated space that the work gets to occupy with all the acclaim and accolades that go along with it. On the other hand, there’s the burden of expectations that the work suffers from for new listeners and the inevitable backlash that comes with any strong praise. Big Thief has been going through such a hype cycle after releasing one of the years most acclaimed albums, U.F.O.F., which came out in May and holds an 87 per cent on metacritic and was named to Pitchfork’s best albums of the 2010’s list only months after its release. 

In the midst of this sea of hype and backlash comes Two Hands, Big Thief’s second album in five months. The Brooklyn band’s haunted take on Indie-folk is on full-display on this record which acts as an extension and refinement of the emotional headspace explored on U.F.O.F.. Songwriter Adrianne Lenker’s lyrical preoccupations still hinge towards death and the supernatural but with this album, it’s more grounded in the everyday minutiae of life than its predecessor with its songs taking place here on earth rather than the cosmic dimension that acted as U.F.O.F.’s setting.

The album takes a slightly more aggressive path, with songs like “Forgotten Eyes” taking a more rhythmic approach than much of their past work, showing a more aggressive sound for the band than their past work. While U.F.O.F.’s most obvious musical reference point would be Joni Mitchell’s 1974 classic Court and Spark, this album takes a decidedly more manic approach and sounds like an ethereal version of Neil Young’s mid-1970’s work with Crazy Horse. 

While the album is filled with mediative folk-rock gems, lead single “Not” simply towers above the rest. To my ears, “Not” is the single best song to be released this year. The six-minute track is built upon a driving, unsteady rhythm that repeats throughout, building upon itself and growing more panicked as it progresses. The lyrics revolve around the word “not” being used to tie together contradictions and double negatives with the atmosphere of the track growing more suffocating and paranoid before culminating in a noise-drenched guitar solo at its conclusion. The track is structured in the same way as other masterpieces like David Bowie’s “Heroes” and LCD Soundsystem’s “All My Friends” but instead shoots for explosiveness where those songs soared.

Overall, however, Two Hands doesn’t live up to the hype for me. Too often the tracks come off as sterile and emotionally smothered, if the album brought the same intensity as “Not” through it’s full running time I would be heartily joining the chorus of acclaim that this band has gained this year. But I still remain skeptical of Big Thief, while noting some flashes of brilliance on this album.


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