On Big Thief‘s Two Hands (October 2019)
Books and albums (you know this, of course) come at their own pace and their own point in time. Sometimes only their own; sometimes where it‘s your point as well. You might miss each other, or you might meet, and the book, the album, the band might point you to a new part of your own world.
And then there‘s the ones where you know, but you don‘t know. You know there‘s something, but you can‘t find the way through for the life of you, and nobody seems to be doing much pointing, or it‘s too much pointers really and all in opposite directions, or that‘s what it looks like from where you‘re currently at.
That‘s how I‘ve been listening to Big Thief‘s second 2019-album Two Hands these last months.
So turn to others, see what they have to say about it, look at the maps they‘ve drawn to lead you to the treasure. But here it seems everyone is quite certain that this is a very good album, and no one is quite certain why. I didn’t read everything and surely have missed a lot, but most of the reviews I read seemed to haul themselves to shore by commenting on how the band is playing together extremely well, or rather, playing as one. Which is stating that Big Thief are being Big Thief very much. It‘s not wrong, it‘s even reassuring; it just doesn‘t tell me much about this album as apart from their other ones. It almost sounds like a mere „even more so“, and this album is not „the same again, only even more so“. That‘s about the only thing I‘m very sure it‘s not. Others kept describing Adrianne Lenker‘s intense vocal performance, but left me wondering if the author realized how extreme some of the lyrics are.
I didn‘t want to write a review on this one, I don‘t feel up to it and I don‘t think I can do any better than others. Sorry for this, then; but it seems if I’m looking for my own map I’ll have to draw it myself.
A friend I find myself quoting and stealing thoughts from whenever I write about this band, suggested it might be a good idea to establish „listening to Big Thief‘s Two Hands“ as a daily routine, like getting dressed or eating breakfast. (I didn‘t, not quite.) And no skipping, this is one album for reasons.
But it‘s not easy. I have difficulties getting past the first song. It‘s like climbing wet rocks of the most evil and treacherous kind in the sort of weather you really really just want to get out of, because your face already hurts a lot and still keeps being beaten more bloody by the hail. Amidst the musical beauty there is an intolerable wrongness, undisguised and unmistakable, words where my words fled and turned against me. It‘s there, and I‘ve been working hard not to have it there anymore, it’s there, in the utter misery of listening to that song. It’s there, and if it has to be somewhere, maybe it’s best if it’s held by a song, but is it held, can even a song contain?
Way to open an album. Way to close it, too, as „Cut my hair“ resonates with this one, the counterpart in an opposing pair of mirrors very slightly angled, to endlessly reflect what‘s most hurtful to look at. I can‘t get in or out unbloodied. IF I listen. But how not to listen to the words, if you listen to the songs at all? Adrianne Lenker‘s lyrics are never shy of compound fractures, and the most open-wounded of them stand out the clearest and starkest, unignorable against the most pleasant backdrop.
Take „Shoulders“, musically a fantastic live song. One could – heaven forbid, but one could imagine this song being played to great avail to a medium-sized stadium audience. And listen to the lyrics. Imagine them being played to several thousand people, and several thousand people singing along. No matter if they do it mindlessly, or actually with their minds full of resonant overdrive and noise, that‘s a scene you maybe wouldn‘t want to see happening. Would you? The urge to dance to this one is as strong as it‘s doubtful and scary.
A thought from Amanda Palmer‘s „There will be no intermission“, her answer to the accusation of making light of subjects too serious, of pain too great: How to tell a story if not in the only way possible from the place where it happened? And what‘s the job of an artist, if not to go into the darkness, and make light? But I don‘t think a song like „Shoulders“ makes light; or if it does, it makes even more light of already too much glaring light. I can‘t make it add up. Maybe it‘s not supposed to. Or it’s me who’s not adding up.
It‘s easier with a song like „The toy“. Here, it‘s not just in the voice and the words, it‘s also in the guitars‘ single reverberating, slightly distorted and destroyed notes, in the hum and the emptiness between the instruments; it‘s congruent.
And I come to think that maybe this is something about trauma, as opposed to „mere“ sadness or hurt: form, form, content and content all warring against each other, themselves, and most importantly, against you; and never, whatever some may smugly tell you, whatever one may tell oneself, never congruence, never reason or cause, and never, never „function“, never. Never a story, it would be the one to bind you, a parasite. An unlistenable unstory, an unlookatable sight, and yet not to be not heard, unseen or overlooked; the question yet unanswered: how to tell it without being ripped apart, how not to tell it wthout being swallowed, suffocating. But telling it, in a possible way from the place where it happened, standing up to themselves and not perishing in the attempt, is the near impossible thing some of these songs seem to be doing. Or so I hear them, for now.
And a song is not a story, but still, can even a song untell?
Then there‘s the peaceful ones , „Wolf“ and „Replaced“. One of them peaceful as defined in Buck Meek‘s „Sue“: The gunfight inside you ripping up stone. The other one, I think, peaceful.
Then there‘s one I can‘t quite make out yet, „Forgotten eyes“. It‘s a typical Big Thief song if there is such a thing; I don’t think there is. Still the words, woven imagery, are upfront, a sincere call to kindness and being human: Yes!
And then, of course, there‘s „Not“. I have already written almost everything I can write about this song here. I could add:
that it‘s unusual for a Big Thief album to have one song standing out like this, lighthouse-like (it doesn‘t make it easier to listen to the whole as a one, I think. I might think otherwise if I ever understand this record);
that Buck Meek‘s guitar falls on the dry nightly stone of this song like northern lights raining in silence from a very empty, cold sky, tearing you up into the vast absence above;
and that this is not only the best song of last year, but of a lot more.
With U.F.O.F‘s beautiful evolutionary chaos, it took me some time to hear the lines, longer to follow them taking their course, longer still to follow them through, but there it was. The world they spun seemed to be this one, but only at some point, on some plane, in some scattered reflection on the surface of time. They had me there: I thought you couldn‘t get further back than to this primeval state of song.
Yet Two Hands steps back several paces from that. It took me severe and rather bloody-minded listening to what seemed to be an uneaven, tightly closed surface of naked earth and stone until even the first crack appeared, longer until anything broke and unravelled, longer still to spot the first things to turn over, sprout, intertwine, start. Become a world? Not yet. And which one? I don‘t know, though I guess it might be too much exactly this one to ever feel comfortable.
Meanwhile, I do like this record, more and more. I‘ve come to love the nervous on-edge defiant near-happiness of „Two hands“ and the disciplined, precise dusk of „Those girls“. I‘m puzzled by others, wince from some, but still I’m awed by what they‘re doing – not, I repeat, that I knew what they‘re doing, where they come from and where they might go upon the next or the 374th listen. But I keep listening, drawing and erasing and redrawing the map. It’s helpful.
And Adrianne Lenker somewhere said these were the songs they‘ll still be playing when they are old, so there is time.
And probably I‘ve been making dark of the record. Don‘t believe a word. Please listen, find light and harmony where I read discord. Please draw up your own map of the place, and tell me all about it.