Review Summary: Indie rock luminaries release the definitive anti-statement.
If there's any band fully primed to release a year-dominating, career-summising, discourse-creating double album of their signature brand of raw, vibified indie rock, it's Big Thief. It's hard to think of another band in the game who've earned the cultural capital and goodwill - through years of hard work, sheer consistency and critical acclaim - to ask fans to buy in on an album like Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You
, with its hefty ante and unclear payoff to those still skeptical of Big Thief's distinctive charms. This 80+ minutes of music should
have been an ambitious but consistent song cycle, a neatly tied bow on Big Thief's career thus far, cementing them as indie rock luminaries well on their way to a legendary legacy. What a relief, in a way, that it's not any of that. Instead, a doubling down on their unapologetically weirdest influences; instead, a scattershot sampling of basically every sound they can conjure, recorded in every different way. The only thing Dragon...
cements is that nothing about Big Thief is set in stone, which is in its own way an absolutely remarkable achievement.
Any album that can be divided into quarters of EP length is a behemoth, but this one goes the extra step of specifically presenting itself as a four-quadrant experience. Comprised of four sides, five tracks each, which we're told in the Bandcamp press release were recorded in four different recording sessions, each yielding a drastically different style. (In summary: a warmup recorded to 8-track which produced some earthy acoustic numbers; an experimental diversion in Topanga Canyon with the studio-savvy Shawn Everett which led to the album's strangest art-rock cuts; a return to the relative normalcy of Dom Monks, engineer behind U.F.O.F/Two Hands
, up in the Rockies; and a finishing stretch at a home studio in Tucson where the band invited Mat Davidson to contribute, adding fiddle and vocals to some truly yeehaw-ified country joints.) Squint hard enough and you might even start to wonder if the unwieldy marathon of a title – again, deep breath, that's Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You
– can be sliced into four for some hidden meanings. That's a lot of ground to cover just to meet an album in the middle, but Big Thief are gloriously unconcerned. They sound like they're having the time of their collective lives, whether dipping into some "Climbing Up the Walls" territory on the truly creepy "Blurred View" or orchestrating a fiddle breakdown while Adrianne Lenker hollers "that's my grandma!" on the wholesome but thin "Red Moon".
Is listening to the album in its entirety as fun as it must have been making it? Your mileage will vary on that point, even moreso than on past Big Thief albums, on which there seems to be no consensus best or worst, simply because Dragon...
presents so much music in so many styles that the hitrate for everyone listening is bound to be all over the place. The unbelievably lovely title track, tripped-out "Flower of Blood", foot-tapping mover "Simulation Swarm" and Elliott Smith-esque "The Only Place" are without a doubt among Big Thief's finest work. They also have no reason to share an album even with one another, let alone the grating guitar clunker "Love Love Love" or the forgettable ditty "12,000 Miles". On occasion the ambitious production experiment absolutely shines, whether the gorgeously layered psychedelic backing on "Little Things" or the sound of actual icicles lending a borderline mystical quality to "Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You"; and sometimes potentially great songs are just kneecapped, on the infuriatingly undercooked "Wake Me Up to Drive" or to too-goofy-by-half "Spud Infinity".
But that's the thing: Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You
plainly isn't trying to form cohesion out of chaos, or orchestrate some easily accessible line of best fit with its sequencing. Instead it seems to argue 'these songs were made by these people, in these spaces over this amount of time, and that's all the common bond they need'. You could arguably listen to it on shuffle and stumble on just as many magical moments as in the album-as-released, like that golden run from "Little Things" to "Blurred View" where the album's experimentation and naked emotional appeal seem to simultaneously peak. Big Thief, frankly, seem to be asking the audience to disregard the idea of an album entirely.
It's one hell of a strategy. Personally, I can't co-sign on Dragon...
as an instant, all-time classic the way it's tempting to do. I don't even think it tops their still-masterpiece, the astonishing Two Hands
, in terms of overall hit rate and emotional gutpunches. But fuck, man, that's just me: reviewing this album at all feels like a sucker's game, when the unquantifiable chemistry between a person and the music they hear is more vital than on most other albums. But there is one thing about this I know I'll always love. The capital-G Great double albums are always maximalist, bold-font statements of intent, encompassing everything that band are and ever will be. Dragon...
is worlds apart from this concept: it actually feels intended to destroy our idea of what Big Thief is instead of defining it. And maybe that's the clean slate this band needed to become what they truly are: indefinable, inexplicable, completely brilliant, utterly frustrating; and above and through all of that, absolute masters of their craft.