Review Summary: A deceptively immediate angle from a band as disinclined as ever to show their full hand.
Big Thief’s first 2019 release, U.F.O.F., had something special going for it. I wouldn’t personally call it a great
record, but it stands as an unusual case of a successful album that attracted near-universal acknowledgment for its best qualities while dividing opinions over how far they actually carried the record. Casual listeners established a soft consensus of excellence for songs like Cattails
, keener listeners cottoned onto Jenni
and Terminal Paradise
, the die-hards were sticking it out over From
, and everyone, absolutely everyone
was swooning over the title track. Whether it was something that only surfaced on specific tracks or ran compellingly through the whole album, the mystery and fragility than the band tapped into on U.F.O.F. made it hard to deny that they had an enviable distinctive edge. It made discussion about the album’s finer points just as much a frustrating tangle of vague adjectives (and adjectives of vagueness) as it was an exciting challenge to pin down exactly what made them sound the way they did. That record was thoroughly ambiguous, and the band seemed to thrive off it for better or worse.
Since it took more than a few months after U.F.O.F.'s release for such discussions to simmer down, allow me to spare you the trouble for Big Thief’s follow-up record: Two Hands is a straightforward indie album articulated in the mixed vocabulary of rock and folk that will sound more or less interchangeable with many other indie folk/rock records you’ll have doubtless heard this year (or any other year). It’s competently composed and performed, equal parts unpretentious and unambitious and altogether Quite Good, but whereas U.F.O.F. somehow managed to ace the debate over whether or not it was a worthwhile listen before discussion of whether or not it was a good
album had even started, Two Hands is very much the other way round. This has less to do with the quality of writing than it does with the means of performance; the relatively direct attitude that drives this album leaves little space for many of the qualities that made Big Thief intriguing to begin with. The band’s switch from acoustic-dominated arrangements full of cyclical, evasive arpeggios to a more upfront indie rock sound backed up by gentle overdrive is all very well, but it forces star player Adrianne Lenker to keep her voice at an intensity prohibitive to the understated dynamic range that she explored so throughly on U.F.O.F.. That’s not say she can’t hold her own over rock songs; her inflection hints at urgency and desperation without ever allowing compromising her trademark clear delivery, but the nuance of these facets feels somewhat crushed and there’s very little on offer here that can’t be easily supplemented with choice cuts from Mazzy Star, Yo La Tengo, Fleet Foxes or even mid-90s Flaming Lips. This would hardly be the end of the world for most groups, but it’s somewhat damning for a band who within recent memory seemed cut out for a niche strictly of their own making.
This is by no means a token to write off these tracks: there’s a lot of enjoyable material on offer here, much of which benefits from the band’s chosen style. Early highlight Forgotten Eyes
is more or less the perfect average of all this album’s strengths, playing out with a cheery rock swing paired movingly with its portrayal of urban homelessness. The way lines like “no crying but it is no less a tear/on the common cheek with which we smile” are delivered like an approximation of a warm-hearted singalong is textbook of Big Thief’s knack for slipping unobtrusively under their listener’s guard. Later on, Shoulders
follows in a similar vein as it maps out a stomach-churning account domestic violence that subverts the bright overtones of its full-bodied rock foundation to devastating effect. Lenker’s performance here feels entirely appropriate for both style and content, and it would be a disservice to expect her near-howl of “the blood of the man/who's killing our mother with his hands/is in me, it's in me, in my veins” to sound any less accusatory and intense. These songs both resonate with the forceful importance they seem to shoot for and can be chalked up as the template of what Two Hands is all about.
At the other end of things is the beautiful Wolf
, which feels similarly direct in its simplicity but tones down the album’s indie rock stylings to explore the pastoral dimensions touched upon by U.F.O.F. even further. Equal parts lullaby and daydream, this song offers a straightforward, stripped down charm that seems as timeless and lovely as any whimsical folk song of its kind. The title track and Replaced
take decent shots at hitting the same airiness and mid-tempo warmth respectively, but neither are nearly as compelling or memorable. The title track uses the band’s trademark clear-toned ascending arpeggios and breathy vocals to give the impression of stretching for something just out of reach, but the same stakes and intrigue as past efforts of this kind don’t crop up the same way, while Replaced
is a comfortable groove that prioritises a sustained mood over standalone hooks but does very little to distinguish itself from your middle-of-the-road Mazzy Star track beyond a slight folky flourish.
Immemorability, unfortunately, is something of a recurring theme here, stripping some of charm out of the bookending tracks Rock and Sing
and Cut My Hair
to the effect that the album as a whole acquires many of the adverse qualities of the daydreamy ambience that U.F.O.F. embraced, even as many of the songs here seek to eschew it. And that’s before we get to the fact that, beyond the scope of innocuous immemorability, certain songs here are a slog to get through. Big Thief seem to have something of a comfort zone at the low side of the tempo spectrum, but it does them no favours at points. The Toy
takes the fragility that had seemed so subtle on tracks like Terminal Paradise
and turns it into a homogenous traipse. It’s not necessarily a bad
song, but the performance feels heavy handed by Big Thief’s standards that it comes off as steeply unimpressive. The same can be said for Those Girls
, a downbeat song so short of distinguishing or engaging factors that you’d be forgiven for forgetting this is one of the album’s shorter cuts. Conversely, highlight track Not turns the pacing and urgency up a notch and comes up trumps with a gripping miniepic, crackling with overdrive that builds over Lenker’s cryptic verses into the kind of skronky guitar jam that would make peak-era Yo La Tengo grin. It’s easy to trace the popularity behind this one and it anchors the album more than adequately, although there’s a slight sense that its knockout quality and grandiose intensity and in part a product of disparity, shown up by other tracks for which far less can be said.
All in all, Two Hands will likely land squarely in the favour of those already satisfied with the band or the shape of the contemporary indie landscape, but for anyone still looking at Big Thief with raised eyebrows and questions involving the word “potential”, it represents at best a calculated sidestep away from the steep expectations that U.F.O.F. swept up in its wake, and at worst a comfortable step backwards. The band’s talent is still very much palpable here, but I can’t avoid the sense that they’ve channelled it into a style too convenient and conventional for it to shine with its full specificity. There’s a certain aptness to this; Big Thief’s charm is so shy and evasive that it would be ironically satisfying if its full scope was confined to individual moments teased within larger albums, suggested fleetingly by a band disinclined to show their full hand. I can certainly live with this, but if band’s narrative is set to revolve around stringing their audience along, I get the sense that Two Hands is far from the end of whatever they have in store for us.