Album Review: Big Thief - U.F.O.F.
There is extra-terrestrial life in the universe; mankind is connected by a universal unconsciousness; all life on the planet is interwoven in a supernatural bond. Whether these things appear more towards the fact or fiction end of the spectrum will be different for each person, but for Big Thief they are treated as truth. These are ideas that have been discussed and accepted between the four members of the band, who have now used them as guiding principles and inspiration for their magical and fantastical third album U.F.O.F..
Big Thief’s folky indie sound is still intact, but for U.F.O.F. they have become masters of studio wizardry, subtly spinning layers of additional instrumentation into their sound, imbuing it with spiritual atmosphere that enhances the divine feelings. The track that approaches unexplained occurrences in the most direct manner is ‘UFOF’ (“UFO Friend”), in which Adrianne Lenker yearns for a connection with life from far out in the universe – and has nightmares about them deciding not to land due to humanity’s hostility. This is also where Big Thief make their sonic prowess most easily noticeable, as they add warped vocal loops and scratchy effects, like an alien transmission running as an undercurrent to Lenker’s interplanetary yearning.
Virtually every song on U.F.O.F. has something supernatural about it. However, the majority are less distinctly mythical than the title track, and, like their previous albums, focus on interpersonal relationships – although the connections explored here are more metaphysical. Lenker is a hyper-empath, and manages to put this across in her delicate poetry and voice, which is then gilded perfectly by her open and aware bandmates. Often she places herself into the bodies of others in her songs, to investigate a variety relationships. Pain is a large factor in her song writing here, but it is held aloft as beautiful; this could be when she’s screaming in agony at the end of ‘Contact’, or when she gently intones “you don’t even know why when you cry,” in ‘Cattails’. The hurting always resounds with feeling that comes from beyond her own body, and it’s always held up resplendently and with dignity in Big Thief’s simple but sophisticated songs.
Accepting the beauty and terror of mortality was a big theme on Lenker’s 2018 solo album abysskiss, and remains one here, especially on the two songs re-recorded from that album. ‘From’ maintains its forthright and independent magnetism from the solo version, while Big Thief’s version of ‘Terminal Paradise’ deepens the soulfulness of the song by having Lenker and Meek sing the fatal chorus in unison over gorgeously reflective guitars. This theme is furthered on ‘Open Desert’, where Lenker envisions herself in an elderly, decaying body and graciously sings of her “brave surrender.”
Of course, with this depth of feeling comes an overwhelming susceptibility to love, and there are plenty of passionate connections enfolded into U.F.O.F.. Big Thief’s brilliance here is shown by their not having to be explicit, allowing their musical intelligence to make simple phrases tell whole stories. It’s enough for Lenker to sing “our limbs are twisting in her bedroom,” (‘Orange’) or simply “Jenni’s in my room,” (‘Jenni’) in tune with their melodic intuitiveness for us to feel the full weight of emotional and physical exchange in these relationships. The romance of being alive is ripe within these songs, it merely needs for Lenker to ask suggest “drive into New York with me” (‘Betsy’) for a whole day of happiness to unfold in our imagination. The most alluring song on the album is ‘Century’, where Lenker’s voice is intertwined with Buck Meek’s as they simply look into each other’s eyes and admit “we have the same power,” while Big Thief lay out their smoothest and most seductive sounds to date.
Big Thief have pulled off a spectacular feat on U.F.O.F., creating their most complex and most subtle album at the same time. Gone are the instantly iconic choruses like ‘Paul’ and the heart-wrenching tales like ‘Mythological Beauty’, instead replaced by conceptual, philosophical, poetic moments. As a band, they have worked to make their instrumentation service Lenker’s unique emotional observations, resulting in Big Thief’s most empathic and ethereal work yet. U.F.O.F. is by no means an album that will grab for your attention, it just rests in the atmosphere like a wavelength, waiting for you to tune in – and you’ll be richly rewarded when you find it.
This article was originally published on The 405 - 3rd May 2019