Josh Rutner

saxophone, etc.

Episode 37: Masterpiece (Big Thief, 2016)

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Years ago I saw an old episode of the 1983 BBC television series called Fun to Imagine in which theoretical physicist Richard Feynman, sitting in a wing chair in his California home, takes a crack at explaining how fire works to a lay audience. He describes, in his thick Queens, New York accent, how the carbon that makes up the wood of the tree came from the air and how that carbon is pined for by the oxygen in that same air, but to connect again requires a boost of speed via heat, and so on. But the part that knocked me out and stayed with me was how he described what’s happening when you put “tree substance” in a fire: “The light and heat that’s coming out,” he said, “that’s the light and heat of the sun that went in. So it’s sort of ‘stored sun’ that’s comin’ out when you burn it, a log.”

In the title track of Big Thief’s 2016 debut album, Masterpiece, lead singer and songwriter Adrianne Lenker sings to a loved one on a hospital bed, “Old stars filling up my throat / you gave ‘em to me when I was born, now they’re coming out.” I can’t help but think of a Feynman’s “stored sun” every time I hear that line. Sometimes it just takes the emotional heat of loss to loosen the stars from one’s throat.

While Big Thief, now rounded out by drummer James Krivchenia—who joined up on the drums after engineering Masterpiece—is a solid and tight-knit unit, the root of the project lies in the pairing of Lenker and lead guitarist and back-up vocalist Buck Meek. The two—who met and kindled a working friendship the first day Lenker moved to New York—have for years been writing and performing music as a duo, releasing two acoustic albums in the spring of 2014 called a-sides and b-sides, respectively.

To steal an idea from Lenker’s song “New York City”—a lovely, old-fashioned ditty that appears on b-sides—she is the Blossom Dearie to Meek’s Buster Keaton. It’s an spot-on comparison, and one I wouldn’t have so blatantly ripped off except I literally couldn’t best it. Both Dearie and Keaton had about their art a forward-facing presentation that veiled the deeper levels of their talents, if not their souls: Dearie, a sharp-witted, heart-rending vocal powerhouse packed inside a light-touch, near-saccharine delivery; Keaton a world-class athlete and comedic artist enveloped in a shroud of the hapless tramp. Offhanded exactitude is a particularly dramatic and exciting way of messaging expertise. 

Lenker for her part parries in her songs emotional blow after emotional blow with airy composure—little throwaway whips of voice tossed upward like magnets hit their targets. See, for example, the wide-leaping verses on “Vegas.” Meek, Keaton-like in his solos, wanders around plucking crunchy extensions from the air and wobbly bending low—see his feature in “Real Love”—but when the two-ton façade of the building finally tips and falls as Lenker’s vocal returns, he has somehow managed to get himself to exactly where he needs to be—of course he did—coolly stepping out of the window frame and walking off as if nothing happened.

Lyrically speaking, no punches are pulled on this album, and thank goodness. Lenker is a poet of the highest order, moving us alternately by way of opaquely evocative distance—love is “a gentle thing,” “thicker than a velvet ring,” for instance—and a stark and naked matter-of-factitude—“love is a cold infection alright,” and “real love is a heart attack.” This album, and indeed all of Lenker’s available output that I was able to find, is rife with gorgeous turns-of-phrase that, in the words of one such phrase, “catch your distraction,” pulling your ears right up close to the speakers to take it all in.

The music on the album is, to put it plainly, very very good. Startlingly so, when taken as a whole. Masterpiece may not a capital-M masterpiece be, but it most certainly is a collection of masterfully constructed, and powerfully presented songs, each with its own scope and vantage point. Track after track after track of burning catharsis. We’re drawn from scene to scene by the ears and dared to keep them open as tales of vicious arguments, domestic violence, mental health melancholy, loves lost, parental abandonment, and more play out in full-color. Of course, there is another side to the emotional on this record, but it’s not happiness per se. More of a softness. Still on the edge of weeping, but tender.

There is an element of lo-fi sound—particularly in the form of field recordings—peppering the otherwise pristinely recorded album, which has received short shrift by many reviewers, baffling them. I myself find them to be incredibly moving pieces of tape, and the perspective shifts alone deepen the experience of listening. There is the recording that appends the fifth track—called “Interstate”—of little Matteo Spaccarelli sing-speaking, “I like a car, I like a truck”—turning the words over and getting a feel for them, clearly elated at the content; but for me, it’s the bird sounds that appear at the end of the penultimate track, “Randy,” that really get me. “There are blue jays all in bloom / all along the cement floor,” Lenker sings. “You don’t know me but you know my name / will you say it till the light is gone?” Then the buzz of her amp rings out and cross-fades into a recording of song birds and I’m there. It goes for 30 seconds but I could have gotten lost in that recording for hours. More than the birds themselves, it’s the butting-up of spaces that brings out in each that which might otherwise go unnoticed or underappreciated.

In a sense, this idea is used as a framing device at the very start of the record, where the first thing we hear is a wave of tape hiss and Lenker singing “Little Arrow,” a song which, according to Meek, she’d written in the middle of the night during the recording sessions, while the rest of the band slept, and, he says, “recorded it on a cheap tape player the moment she finished writing it.”

“Is it, could it, was it dreaming?”

The transition from the dusty “Little Arrow” to the cleanly recorded title track which follows is stunning and effective. Meek says that the band considered trying to record “Little Arrow” as a group, but in the end there was something so pure about that first version, “like a birth,” he said, that it made sense to leave it be, and even open the album with it.

Masterpiece is a thrilling debut, and one whose music and lyrics are deep enough to warrant many repeated listenings. There is, within Big Thief, a fire burning, and their stars are only beginning to come out.

I’m Josh Rutner, and that’s your album of the week.