Big Thief and the Return of Nonsense Folk, by Eleanor Prytherch
When Big Thief released their newest album, Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You, it was an excellent surprise to wake up to on a Friday morning. As much as I loved their previous releases, I hadn’t really been keeping up with the album announcement or the single releases for Dragon, so opening the album to find twenty new songs felt like some kind of gift for surviving the winter.
Dragon is the group’s first release since 2019. They put out two albums that year before taking a break for frontwoman Adrienne Lenker to release and tour a solo album, titled songs. Big Thief is very much Lenker’s project; she single-handedly wrote all twenty songs on the new album except for one, which was written with her long-time collaborator and ex-husband, Buck Meek. Still, Dragon maintains an acute distinctness from her solo work, incorporating strange instruments and techniques to create a funky and surreal sound, in contrast to the stripped down acoustic of songs. While this album explores a range of innovative sounds and puts an experimental spin on folk, it’s all neatly woven together by Lenker’s poetic lyricism. Below are my top four recommendations for those looking for a place to start with this benevolent dragon of an album.
“Ash to ask and dust to dusk / A dime a dozen aren't we just? / But a dozen dimes will buy a crust of garlic bread”
Third on the album, “Spud Infinity” takes us immediately in a playful traditional folk direction. Bluegrass-style fiddle stars in this song, punctuated with the distinctive boing of a jaw harp. A muffled, bluesy, electric guitar provides some contrast while a jovial drum march fades into the final fiddle improvisation. I think the title gives a pretty good idea of the kind of nonsensical existentialism to expect from the songwriting. Lenker uses ants, potatoes, and elbows to ask questions about who we are and what we’re doing here that leaves you feeling lighter than before.
“So leave the bed unmade / Draw the light green shade / Start the microwave / Dried roses / Dried roses”
For those looking for something a little more akin to Lenker’s work on songs, this is the song you’re looking for. With simple guitar strumming and a subdued folk fiddle underlining, her songwriting skill is allowed to sew a quilt of soft, domestic images that provide both comfort and a sense of melancholy. This song, perhaps the closest thing to a traditional style folk song on the record, illuminates what is perhaps the most distinctive aspect of her writing.
“Hand upon my skin / Warm me up and calm me down / I like to watch your chin / Tracing the familiar sound / Of a famous song”
In a departure from some of the more traditional styles so far on the album, this song starts off with what sounds like soft accordion, a frantic drum machine beat, and distorted background guitar. The result has the same feeling one might have on a long night time car ride: rhythmic, fuzzy, repetitive, with few dynamics. Again, Lenker’s evocative yet subdued lyrics are much of what makes it so memorable. The feeling of intimacy she’s able to create in so few and simple words, sung almost in a monotone, vividly conjures the memories of similar night drives.
“I remember building an energy shield / In your room, like a temple / Swallows in the windless field / Very thin, with your mother / Tall as a pale green tree”
This was the song that struck me the most upon my first listen-through of the album, mostly because of the intricate guitar groove (along with a funky and unconventional bass line). It scratches an itch in my brain and is to me the most memorable hook on the album. Over this background, Lenker’s lyrics reflect on several experiences in her life that deeply affected her, and have inspired her music in the past. She pulls this off by, once again, using her signature patchwork of images, surreal snapshots, and nonsensical moments that weave an odd yet tangible feeling within the listener. “Simulation Swarm” is probably the best place to start to get a taste of the kind of groove, storytelling, and strangeness that abounds across the record.