By C.B. Radio
In just two albums released in consecutive years, New York’s Big Thief have blazed a trail through an alt-country scene dominated by world-weary male folkstars over the past decade. If the Jeff Tweedys and Jason Isbells of the music world offer us anything, it’s consistency – but Big Thief’s recent output, culminating with 2017’s breathtaking Capacity, brings a fresh female voice to Omaha’s Saddle Creek label, which here trades Conor Oberst’s signature shaky wail with the confident country provided by newcomer Adrianne Lenker.
Indeed, Lenker makes her unique voice known right away on opening track “Pretty Things.” It’s a decidedly sexual song, a depiction of heated romance where Lenker sings of “an eating in my thighs / wherein thunder and lightning men are baptized.” If her soft, tender vocal weren’t so wistful, the lyric could almost seem humorous. In this context, over the quiet fingerpicking of her acoustic guitar, Lenker sounds downright depressed. “Don’t take me for a fool,” she says to her lover. “There’s a woman inside of me / there’s one inside of you, too / And she don’t always do pretty things.”
It’s evident that Lenker is exorcizing demons with many of these tracks. Capacity is a regretful record, one that spends much of its half-hour running time looking backward. Lenker, however, doesn’t always lose her bouts with nostalgia. The record’s best moments recall ecstatic golden-hour memories with loved ones. The best song here, the penultimate “Mary,” describes either a same-sex summer romance or an especially close female friendship. There’s a passage midsong that contains some of the best lyrics of the past several years. Even if you’ve heard the album just once, it sticks with you, as Lenker paints a picturebook of hazy memory. “The sugar rush / the constant hush / the pushing of the water gush / the marching band / when April ran….” She goes on like this for several minutes. To put it simply, her wordplay is nothing short of poetic.
While Capacity doesn’t contain anything as immediate as the title track from the band’s first record, 2016’s Masterpiece, the album grows on you with its deeply heartfelt musings on life, love, and heartbreak. Lenker’s openness is striking, and Capacity is Big Thief’s breakout record, a postcard to the past which will introduce most listeners to Lenker’s signature brand of crooning country. It’s one of 2017’s most impressive musical statements, and it’s easy to imagine bigger things to come for the Brooklyn band. Their capacity for growth seems endless.