When Adrianne Lenker takes a step closer to the mic – her guitar tightly clasped, her eyes sincerely closed – and starts singing, the room is filled with a tangible glow, a sweet, heady smell of recognition that flows harmoniously from line to line, absorbed by the wonderstruck crowd until every particle of meaning is inhaled. To deliver meaning is, for Lenker, a substantial part of her creative work: “That’s where the audience, the band, and me are meeting at this center, and the center is the meaning. […] In talking about the heavy things and looking at them and asking about the meaning there is such a release.”
Big Thief’s second album Capacity brilliantly encapsulates their visceral willingness of telling stories and sharing memories.
Shark Smile, melodically the most captivating song on the album, describes the moment when two lovers are parted by a car accident. The beginning, auspiciously orchestrated, is nourished by Lenker’s huge narrative appetite. Her voice, gentle but determined at first, becomes something far more powerful and emotionally drawn as the story goes on; her voice cracks as the car turns over – but always comes back to the soothing, mantra-like chorus: “And she said woo/Baby, take me/And I said woo/Baby, take me too.”
This record is like a storybook crammed full of truthful thoughts and brutally honest moments. Capacity, the name giver of the album, is an example par excellence – a mellowing, brilliantly worded ode to devotion and vulnerability with a twist of irony: “Do what you want with me/Lost in your captivity/Learning capacity/For make-believing everything/Is really hanging on.”
This line is at the heart of these contrasting emotions. It’s both the truth and not quite the truth. Sometimes, we behave in ways that we know are wrong and we’re never quite sure why we do it.
Lenker’s candid lyrics are the outlines of a picture that gets coloured in by the rich, carefully chosen instrumentation in general, and by Buck Meek’s meticulous guitar play in particular.
This is followed by a tender thrust. Mythological Beauty is a deep dive into the past that makes the Quiff shiver and shine, giggle and grieve: “I built a ladder out of metal pieces/Father was working hard/Standing beneath the oak tree by the front door/You were inside baking bread.” Due to its personal proximity, scenes like this one become a rather mutual experience that allows us to wallow in togetherness.
There’s this crippling, yet ecstatic, feeling that’s been gliding swiftly through Quiff’s veins from the very first second of Capacity. His mind, toggling between play and rewind, finds ease with Mary. Ease in words long forgotten, reviving sweet, sweet memories. Lenker’s approach to songwriting is defined by its cathartic essence; by the ability to undress emotional turmoil and discover the unblemished core: “[…] when I first wrote the song I thought I was definitely writing it all about this dear friend and these experiences — and that time folded into other memories and just like a non-linear stream of life — but then later I started realizing in listening to it that a lot of the lines were applicable to myself, and things that I needed to hear.” Her stories are accentuated by beautiful onomatopoeia and allegorical words, floating seamlessly from one line to another: “The sugar rush/The constant hush/The pushing of the water gush/The marching band/When April ran/May June bugs fly in/Push your gin Jacob/With the tired wiry brandy look/Here you go around Mary in your famous story book.”
Big Thief’s second album seems even more prolific, and Lenker’s aim to deliver meaning more poignant, than on their debut Masterpiece. It’s one of those records you can listen to a hundred times and still notice tiny, new details, narratively as well as musically. All the songs on Capacity are like seeds laid in your imagination, that with the passing of time blossom into something rare and beautiful and delicate. Lenker pretty much nails it when she states: “A lot of those emotions were really raw when we were capturing them on Masterpiece, and I think on Capacity those emotions and experience are just settling in and now it’s as if they’ve woven themselves into a bigger, deeper picture.”
You can purchase Capacity from Big Thief’s website here.