With each song on songs and instrumentals—the couplet of newly released albums from Big Thief frontwoman Adrianne Lenker—the songwriter beautifully and carefully crafts a transparent body of music, rich in vivid, distinctive storytelling.
With the Big Thief tour ending prematurely in March 2020 due to an increase in COVID-19 cases, Lenker made her way back to the United States. She settled in a cabin in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts, enlisted famed engineer Phil Weinrobe to record and mix her songs and recorded two distinct LPs: songs, a retrospective, lyrical journey through Lenker’s consciousness, and instrumentals, a compilation of her own ethereal, improvisational guitar-playing. Utilizing only an acoustic guitar, her voice, and the sounds of nature, Lenker gracefully constructs a body of music that welcomes the sounds of nature as an accompaniment to her introspection.
One of songs’ more uptempo cuts, “two reverse,” typifies Lenker’s unique lyricism. Throughout the entire album, her clever wordplay and metaphorical bent are on display. “Ingydar” juxtaposes colorful elements of the natural world with cold technology to provide abstract descriptions of scenes: “His eyes are blueberries, video screens,” she sings. Lenker’s incorporation of natural elements into her songwriting produces a raw and honest timbre, something with which fans of Lenker’s work are familiar.
Another distinctive feature of Lenker’s songwriting is her consistent reference to her past—the places she once lived, the relationships she once had. Lenker’s song “mythological beauty” from Big Thief’s 2017 album, capacity, details an event from her childhood when she suffered a nasty head injury, invoking a memory of Lenker’s mother praying for her daughter’s life. Like most people, Lenker has stories from her life whose emotional and traumatic nature make them easy to recall—but Lenker’s superpower is her unparalleled ability to retell these events in vivid poetry. The conclusion to songs, “my angel,” is a graceful example of this ability. Songwriting is a way for Lenker to reckon with moments from her past that have left an impression on her; she narrows in on the details of her memory, crafting truthful stories that only she can tell.
The first single released from songs, “anything,” falls in line with this theme of honesty. Lenker intimately recalls a past relationship, illustrating specific details with fluid verse. In the chorus, she examines the small moments and longs for their return: “I don’t wanna talk about anyone / I wanna sleep in your car while you’re driving / Lay in your lap when I’m crying.” In a New Yorker interview, Lenker explained her most recent breakup has left her feeling empty, stating, “there’s a fullness that happens when someone is focused on you.” Her song “zombie girl” leans further into that feeling: “Oh, emptiness, tell me about your nature,” she sings. Lenker’s music doubles as a form of ruthless self-interrogation, and “zombie girl” offers a candid depiction of a human attempting to heal from a devastating loss.
Instrumentals shifts away from storytelling and focuses on Lenker’s impressive, improvisational guitar-playing. Imagine sitting on the porch of a cabin in a forest: hanging from the ledge of the porch are wind chimes, quietly resonating and blending in with the sounds of birds and the delicate rustling of leaves. Lenker’s instrumentals is the soundtrack to this landscape. Lenker has incorporated the entropic sounds of nature into her music as a second instrument. Intricate finger-picking—and occasional moments of birds chirping, chimes ringing and even a small chuckle from Lenker herself—designates instrumentals as a fly-on-the-wall, unedited window into the atmosphere in which Lenker creates her records. In an isolated space, absent of external judgement and the harsh sounds of a bustling society, Lenker had the freedom to create music “that helped [her] heal,” according to the press release accompanying both albums.
Lenker has created something completely her own—her music is a personal journey through thought and time. When an opportunity to disconnect from the commotion and disorder of the world presented itself to her, Lenker seized it. The resulting art, songs and instrumentals, offer a glimpse into an undisturbed interiority. At times when it seems like the world is crumbling and pessimism rules, Lenker opens the door to her own vulnerability, inviting listeners into the process of healing. This is her offering to a world that is struggling to find peace.