Big Thief Tune in to a Higher Frequency on the Unearthly U.F.O.F.
The first song on U.F.O.F., Big Thief’s third album, is called “Contact,” and the first word in the song is “Jodi.” That’s how it’s spelled in the lyric sheet: Jodi, without an e at the end. The song contains no explicit references to aliens, spaceships, or radio transmissions. Still, given the title; the woman’s name; the eerieness of the music, which hangs like mist around songwriter-guitarist Adrienne Lenker’s voice; and the extraterrestrial imagery that appears elsewhere on U.F.O.F. (the last F stands for “friend”); it’s easy to associate “Contact” with a particular scene: Jodie Foster lying on the hood of her car in the 1997 film of the same name, headphones on, surrounded by brown grass and satellite dishes, waiting patiently for signals from above. It’s a fitting opening for an album that keeps one foot planted in this world while the other nudges toward someplace more beautiful and frightening. Big Thief’s previous records concerned themselves with love, sex, violence, companionship, family. U.F.O.F. does too, but it also confronts the spectres that haunt the backgrounds of these earthly scenes: the chaotic power of nature, the ghosts in the woods and in your bedroom, the strange lights in the night sky, the thrilling oblivion of death.
Lenker is a quietly ferocious songwriter, conveying remarkable intimacy and self-possession both. On Big Thief’s last album, 2017’s dazzling Capacity, and especially on their scrappier 2016 debut Masterpiece, the sound of the band tracked each of these dueling impulses, alternating songs so spare they’re almost painful with big rock gestures that offer satisfying catharsis. In the four years since their formation, Big Thief has built an adoring audience by touring endlessly, all over the place. One assumes that their grueling schedule has at least something to do with financial necessity, in an era when streaming has made it nearly impossible for young bands who want to pursue music full-time to support themselves any other way. After the success of Capacity, there must have been a temptation to make their songs broader, more bombastic, to give new listeners an easy way in, and to suit the increasingly large stages they’re playing on the road. Instead, they’ve gotten softer and subtler, dedicated to following the music as it comes, even if it takes them away from immediacy and accessibility. U.F.O.F. contains none of the sorts of songs that tend to get the loudest reactions at Big Thief shows: no anthems-in-waiting like “Paul,” no Springsteen-ish road warriors like “Shark Smile,” not even magisterial ballads like “Mary.” It moves according to the oblique logic of the subconscious, entering your mind through the back door.
A newfound attention to space has allowed Big Thief to expand their palette even as they’ve brought the volume down. When “Contact” reaches something like a climax in its second half, where Lenker might previously have unleashed her full formidable power as a guitarist, she instead jumps to a liminal plane between quietude and intensity. There’s no solo; only the chilling sound of a woman’s shrieks in the distance. There are moments like this across the album, when understated samples and electronics, or deviations from orthodox rock-band arrangement, bring the music to bloom in unexpected ways. “From,” one of two songs that originally appeared on Lenker’s stripped-back solo album abysskiss, begins in this version with a difficult-to-place tactile sound rolling across fingerpicked acoustic guitar, then a loose jazzy pattern from drummer James Krivchenia. Lenker goes from listening to her dog barking through the floor to contemplating the mystery of life itself: “Baby’s coming soon / Wonder if she’ll know / Where she’s come from.” The final word repeats and layers on itself, and the music expands in the uncanny manner of a time-lapse nature film, condensing weeks of growth into a few wriggling seconds. A melodic bass line bubbles up from below and tentative woodwinds (or electronics that sound like them) peek in at the margins as Lenker’s voice fades further and further away. It’s a breathtaking sequence, recalling the best of bands like Radiohead and Talk Talk, and it’s over almost as soon as it begins.
The drift and elision of U.F.O.F.’s musical accompaniment reflect the spectral preoccupations of its songwriting. Few musicians are better than Lenker at addressing the traumas and ecstasies of living within a human body; now, she seems to be wondering what existence might be like without one. After the warehouse lofts, speeding cars, and bars that “smell like piss and beer” of previous Big Thief albums, much of this one is set in places where the boundaries of lived experience are easier to apprehend: under moonlight, in the forest, or the hospital waiting room. The title track, like much great UFO-centric art, uses alien abduction as a way to talk about transcending the limits of the flesh, and possibly of Earth itself. “Another map turns blue,” a line from the chorus, brings to mind sea levels rushing upward, which Lenker’s narrator experiences as a kind of terrible rapture: “The last sunlight / I don’t need any other friends / The best kiss I ever had / is the flickering / of the water so clear and bright.” On “Betsy,” Lenker manages to escape her own voice, singing of “rings of crystal light” in a register low enough to make her sound like a different person. Even “Strange,” whose shuffling groove is U.F.O.F.’s most recognizably upbeat, is populated by silkworms, fruit bats, and minds splitting open, its stability eventually dissolving in waves of lyrical improvisation from bassist Max Oleartchik.
For all U.F.O.F.’s otherworldly sonics, its most striking song is also its most straightforward. The only sounds on “Orange” are Lenker’s clear voice and her patient acoustic guitar, strumming its way through a circular progression. “Orange is the color of my love / Fragile orange wind in the garden,” she begins. That pleasantly hazy scene turns suddenly distinct in the next lines, as her companion fills the frame: “Fragile means that I can hear her flesh / Crying little rivers in her forearm.” Boundaries evaporate between sight and sound, sweat and tears, fluids coursing through our bodies and through the landscapes around them. “Fragile is that I mourn her death / As our limbs are twisting in her bedroom,” she finishes, encapsulating in a few words the tangled relationship between intimacy and destruction that has animated so many of her songs. “Real love makes your lungs black,” she sang back on Masterpiece. Sometimes it obliterates you completely.
“Magic Dealer,” U.F.O.F.’s final song, sits at the edge of a vacuum. “Would it hurt to be nearer?” Lenker asks, over instrumentation so minimal as to be virtually nonexistent. A power-ballad drum fill arrives from nowhere and leads nowhere, cutting out before it can cohere into a beat. Lenker keeps singing until everything is as “still as the moment we’re lying in right now.” The music lets out a long celestial sigh, then does something we’ve all longed to do at one point or another: it disappears into silence.