Review Summary: You whisper to a restless ear, can you get me out of here?
Some vocalists just have that special quality to their sound that instantly reels you into their music; Big Thief’s Adrianne Lenker is one of those vocalists. Throughout the band’s debut album, Masterpiece
, twelve quirky folk-rock tunes flow with style alongside the singer’s mesmerizing and airy delivery. With comparisons already being drawn to the likes of Sharon Van Etten and Hop Along's Frances Quinlan, she has big boots to fill, but manages to leave her own unique imprint on Big Thief's music. Her performance is always charming and flexible, yet it’s just vague enough to give off an unmistakably mysterious vibe.
The instrumentation is pretty dialed down at times on Masterpiece
, with Lenker being the obvious star of the show, but it’s not without its pizzazz. ‘Little Arrow’ contains the discreet and muffled strum of an acoustic guitar, as the folk singer’s effortless performance blankets itself over any real sense of structure. The following title track is mid-paced, but feels quite peppy and welcoming following the somber and static-filled introduction. Though only as loud as the production calls for, the guitars are kicked up a notch as Lenker reveals her first truly witty and sarcastic line - Can you get me out of here, this place smells like piss and beer.
These biting lyrics are sung with such a joyful sincerity that it’s hard not to feel a sense of warmth amongst the singer’s adorable croon. However, as often as her contagious voice carries the album, her performance is elevated by creative and jarring guitar-work courtesy of Buck Meek. Despite never going too over-the-top, he adds a unique flavor to the experience. On ‘Real Love’, the guitarist closes the song out with a distorted and spastic solo, what feels like an angry response to Lenker’s grim portrait of true love. ‘Humans’ gets similar treatment, with some decidedly bizarre guitar tones, and ‘Animals’ has perhaps the most seductive rhythm on the entire record.
It takes a natural musician with a strong sense of melody to craft a slow burner without entering the realm of boredom. Although all the songs range from slow to mid-tempo on Masterpiece
, Lenker’s ability as a songwriter is wholly satisfying. The reflective ‘Paul’ finds the singer at her most poetic, as she admits how far she’d go for a lover’s acceptance in an amusing fashion: I’ll be your record player baby if you know what I mean, I’ll be your real tough cookie with the whisky breath / I’ll be a killer and a thriller and the cause of our death.
Despite her confident and clever conduct, there’s a nagging sense of vulnerability throughout her delivery that suggests she’s revealed her most fragile state: it’s this very sensation that makes her such a powerful vocalist. At times, she sounds downright beautiful and joyous, while others, she sounds desperate and alone. She utilizes these various moods to her advantage, adding that extra edge and depth to her songwriting.
In an interview regarding Masterpiece
, Lenker revealed the album’s heavy subject matter, describing it “as the process of harnessing pain, loss, and love, while simultaneously letting go, looking into your own eyes through someone else’s, and being okay with the inevitability of death.” Quite the mouthful, really, but the potent themes throughout the album are jolted to life with the musician’s emotional performance. With raw lyricism, and an incredibly strong sense of melody, Big Thief’s Masterpiece
contains just about everything one could hope for in a debut album. The hazy but sturdy melodies give off vibes of a much older band, which only raises the bar of expectations higher for the group’s sophomore effort. Among the album’s whimsical nature, it’s nearly impossible not to feel infatuated with Adrianne Lenker’s hypnotizing vocal performance. With a level of quirkiness you’d find in a Regina Spektor album, but with all the restraint of Liz Harris’ work in Grouper, the folk musician is already making a respectable name for herself among her mates in Big Thief. Modern folk fans take note; it’s not every day we get the pleasure of hearing such an accomplished debut.