Big Thief comes down to earth with ‘Two Hands’

Sunday, October 20, 2019 - 4:42pm

NOSELL

Saddle Creek

At Bear Creek Studios last summer, just outside Seattle, the indie band Big Thief hit a point of contention. In their secluded, wooden cabin studio, they realized they had over two albums worth of music to record. Lead singer and prolific writer, Adrianne Lenker, had created over 50 songs in the two years since releasing their sophomore album, Capacity. Only five days after recording their third album U.F.O.F, Big Thief hunkered down to record their newest record Two Hands. 

Big Thief physically linked the two albums together from the beginning; when fans purchased U.F.O.F. on vinyl in July of 2019, they noticed blank 7” records in their purchase, with the unreleased single “Two Hands.” Little did fans know, this subtle gesture hinted at the connectedness to a companion album that was on its way. Now, we finally have both — Big Thief’s golden age is in full bloom. 

Two Hands is a down-to-earth album that investigates the nature of bodies and of the earth, illuminating brothers, lovers and the planet as a collective body. Where U.F.O.F escapes towards out-of-body experiences (with production that matches the drum of a spiritual ethos), Two Hands roots itself in the body, launching into uncharted territory in its practical yet questioning encasement of the human experience. Still, the temporal closeness of both records’ creation shows: Lenker’s autobiographical moments and use of characters peels back layers, which is paired with an extreme willingness to be vulnerable. This is Big Thief’s sweet spot.  

Two Hands interrogates the social follies we’re all responsible for, while remaining in touching distance to the beautiful glow of our bodies and earth. The record does the same sonically: Adrianne’s voice has a delicate desperation that cries out as if for justice, but the fingerpicking and chord progression always pulls her back into a swing. All the while, the use of descending chord progressions in Two Hands lowers listeners down to the soil. 

Lead single “Forgotten Eyes” is emblematic of what Big Thief does thematically throughout the album. “Forgotten Eyes” dives into climate change, homelessness and violence, taking these social issues and situating them in a singular identity. The lyrics position “them” next to “I,” creating a sort of accountability with the lyrics “And the poison is killing them, but then so am I.” In these lines, Lenker’s voice breaks, but is saved by the chorus, a rush of soothing chords, as the listener is settled into the grounded, fruitful message: “Everybody needs a home and deserves protection.” Desperate breakaways in vocals followed by humming instrumentation might be the best way to describe the genius of Two Hands, both sonically and lyrically. Lenker’s voice breaks and shreds, allowing her to delicately stray for emphasis, until the chord progression and more symmetric fingerpicking brings the listener back under her protection, weaving a soothing cocoon that pulls her breaking voice back in. The album is quiet at the right times, building gently to Adrianne’s piercing moments. 

The title track “Two Hands” emphasizes the earthen nature of this record. Adrianne is in her upper register, complemented with guitar sequences that emulate birds chirping — it has a Snow White quality. She goes from a Disney princess singing to the birds, earthly in every sense, to a musician of much harsher tones later in the record, specifically on the track “Not.” “Not” carries the most pent-up anger on the album, repeating the use of “not” or “nor” at the beginning of each line, then listing entities we touch, feel, taste, see and hear. Right after the aggression of the track “Not” we get “Wolves,” which brings us back to nature, using a consistent droning note and a complex rhythm on top, as if to catch the morning sun. Adrianne’s “ooos” start to sound like the howl of a wolf.

My personal favorite on the record, “Shoulders,” reflects on violence in our own veins, with the fierce lyrics: “It’s me, it’s me, it’s in my veins.” Big Thief takes on large topics like violence and looks at them microscopically. For another example, “The Toy” haunts with a sound that coos, while its lyrics suggest the toy in her hand could be a gun. 

2019 is the year of Big Thief. Adrianne draws in fans with an intense stare that kills, and a voice that murders. With Two Hands Big Thief evolves their sound to be gentle yet powerful, melodic social commentary on our own bodies and the body of human beings collectively. Big Thief’s pair of 2019 albums emphasize the love of interconnection. This sort of locked-in, groundedness to each other and to the earth itself, as displayed on Two Hands, is best encompassed in the following quote from Adrianne in an interview with Stereogum

“I think in the next 10 years, we’re probably going to find some way to protect some patch of the earth and maybe build a studio and have underprivileged children be able to come and make music … We want to create something that would help, not just donate money we get from tour to organizations but try and grow closer to the earth, closer to our own centers.” 

That’s what Two Hands does. It grounds us. It brings us closer to our own centers.