Album Review: Big Thief - Two Hands
Big Thief’s musical passion has driven them to release a consistent stream of albums every year for the last few, both as a band and as solo artists in the cases of Adrianne Lenker and Buck Meek. Significantly, this hasn’t affected the quality of their output, and making the leap to 4AD, with bigger sales and touring expectations, doesn’t seem to have slowed them down either. In fact, it might have even put more of a fire under their backsides, as their fourth album Two Hands comes a mere matter of months after the glorious U.F.O.F..
Deemed the “earth twin” to U.F.O.F.’s “celestial twin”, Two Hands is an album that is more concerned with terrestrial troubles, bodily emotions and the beauty of mortal toil. The album was again recorded in rural surroundings, this time by the Texas/Mexico border, surrounded by acres of pecan trees. It’s certainly a place that lends itself to these dusty and driven tracks, and the band’s aural nous has led them to a recording style that emphasises this too. There are barely any overdubs on Lenker’s voice, allowing it to glide over the folk passages the band lays out, which are by turns rough and fragile.
This decision to leave the vocals unadorned makes the tactile feelings and images of Lenker’s words all the more tangible and breathable. Rather than feeling lost in Lenker’s dreams and fantasies, as we did on U.F.O.F., here we feel as if we’re next to her; around a campfire, on a hike or in the backseat of a car, hearing her tales of love and woe. The first reference she makes to herself on the record, in ‘Rock and Sing’, is “I am that naked thing swimming in air”; a perfectly beautiful way to capture the primal force that is a human being, the vessel that carries our spirits through this life, and a great introduction to the mind that is guiding us through this record.
The titular Two Hands are a recurring motif on the record, Lenker interrogating the different feelings that can come from their work and physical connection. On this record the Two Hands are not only playing the music, but are embracing someone, keeping someone at bay, lifting someone out of trouble, cutting someone’s hair or revealing someone’s life story. In all of these cases, Lenker’s poetic ability to unravel these simple images or ideas into vocal and lyrical magic is as intoxicating as ever, especially with the sound of her band mates animating the movements alongside.
Another exciting element of Two Hands is the chance that it gives for Lenker and her band to explore their more animalistic and primal side. This is heard in the cyclone single ‘Not’, where Big Thief drive further onwards through a torrential outpouring of words from Lenker. Compelled by her desire to capture something indefinable, she tears through a list of things it isn’t, eventually getting down to her guttural rasp as the band rumbles along with her into a combusting guitar solo. ‘Shoulders’ is similarly fiery, Lenker reckoning with her family tree, acknowledging “the blood of the man who killed my mother with his hands is in me/ it’s in me/ in my veins,” while her bandmates express these terrified feelings in a soft crash of sounds.
Even when the songs are at their most delicate and stripped-back, Lenker’s inner beasts make themselves known. This is the case on ‘Those Girls’, where Lenker feels jealousy and shame when looking at a group of peers from a distance, but pushes the demons back down at the arrival of a beloved Zoë. ‘Wolf’ sees her making a spiritual connection with the titular creature, singing “My safe keeper/ The wolf is howling for me,” and she then howls, delightfully, right back.
You can’t say that Two Hands is an overtly hopeful album, but it is far from hopeless. Rather, it is realistic and grounded. Big Thief’s restraint in adding the production wizardry they showcased on U.F.O.F. is a key move to making the songs of Two Hands really hit their mark. Like all brilliant writers and musicians, Big Thief offer plenty of material to set your imagination running, but whether you take the impetus into a bright new dawn or into a secluded and darkened corner is completely up to you. Either way, Big Thief will accompany you to wherever your emotions dictate, offering solace, empathy and escape.
This article was originally published on The 405 - 11th October 2019.