Recommended tracks: “Little Things”, “Change”, “12,000 Lines”, “Promise is a Pendulum”
If you followed Big Thief’s ascension into one of the most revered bands in indie rock, it wasn’t much of a surprise when they announced a twenty-song double album. After all, this was the same band that, in 2019, after releasing the eagerly-anticipated UFOF at the beginning of the summer, turned around at the end of the summer and released the Grammy-nominated Two Hands, containing arguably their most critically-beloved single in “Not”. Their live shows frequently consist of unreleased material, and last fall’s tour hinted at something massive on the horizon and inspired titanic headlines from music blogs across the internet. The double album felt like the final frontier from the four-piece — and Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You, released today from 4AD, is a stunning example of a group operating at peak performance and staking a claim to be the best band on this earth. It’s easy to rely on previous double album experiences when describing DNWMIBIY, like calling it their White Album or Exile on Main Street, but even that would barely scratch the surface; Big Thief has made a modern classic, and one of the first truly great albums of the 2020s.
The album’s free-wheeling and expansive nature was born out of a desire to change things up from the typical Big Thief experience. While in lockdown, the band chased this sound all over the country, winding up in four separate locations ranging from Topanga Canyon to upstate New York, determined to throw everything on the record. You can hear drummer (and producer of DNWMIBIY) James Krivchenia’s preference for first takes throughout the album — there are moments of pure musical discovery like when Adrianne Lenker whispers “it’s music” through “Time Escaping”, or the soft crushing of icicles in the marvelous title track. The variations between these tracks make the album less cohesive than previous Big Thief records, but it’s mind-numbing that no matter what version of the band they attempt to be, they not only stick the landing, but they are still absolutely incredible at it. The single “Change”, which opens the album, is a somewhat standard acoustic folk number with one of the prettiest combinations of lyricism and plaintive instrumentation that the band has put to tape; “Blurred View”, which sits at the halfway point of the record, incorporates electronic drumbeats and sampling that wouldn’t sound out of place on The King of Limbs. Somewhere in between these two extremes exists the bulk of DNWMIBIY, constantly dividing itself between a band that’s perfected its past and a thrilling exploration of its future.
Not once over the twenty songs does it ever feel like the album is dragging along — the ramshackle shoegaze of “Little Things” gives way to the near-funk stomp of “Heavy Bend”. The pining love song “12,000 Lines” sits back-to-back with “Simulation Swarm”, which has my favorite breakdown and solo of any Big Thief song. As has been written about endlessly, the band’s chemistry dominates these recordings — like their live shows as they play off of each other in a circle, that same communal dynamic stretches to this album, no matter the genre attempt. Buck Meek and Lenker’s guitar virtuosity leads the way on tracks like “Little Things” and “Love Love Love”, and the rhythm section of Krivchenia and Max Oleartchik are the understated MVPs of the album; I found myself bobbing my head and dancing to Big Thief through these songs more often than ever before thanks to their lockstep groove. Lenker’s incredible songwriting and voice are the glue on DNWMIBIY that ties everything together. The remarkably direct songwriting that she explored on 2020’s songs is on display here, as she takes on the topic of falling in love and the changes of the world. Amidst the noisy clatter of “Little Things”, she’s ruminating on true love, proclaiming that “You’ll never love yourself half as much as I love you / And you’ll never treat yourself right darling, but I want you to / If I let you know, I’m here for you / Maybe you’ll love yourself like I love you, oh”. The arresting solo number “Promise is a Pendulum” sticks within her now-iconic use of forest imagery (“I’ve been listening to the laughing of the fox down the trail / I’ve been clasping to the listening of the moss to the snail”) before a remarkable turn at the chorus, where’s she’s simply informing a partner of the uncertainty that’s found in vulnerability: “I could nеver tell you now what I had often said bеfore / Because promise is a pendulum, just swinging at the door / And I’m not saying I’m not jealous, or scared anymore / I’m just saying”. This feeling is extended to the duet between her and Meek on “12,000 Lines”, which delightfully feels like some of the early demos that put the band on our radar.
The best thing about this band is their propensity for the idea of adding more, as Dragon wouldn’t exist without Lenker and co. ‘s attempt to discover all that existed around them. Hell, the incredible flute solo that exists on “No Reason” is from Richard Hardy, a musician that the band heard in the wild while recording in Arizona! That’s literally a narrative that couldn’t be scripted more perfectly, and it fits directly into Big Thief’s ethos as a band to consistently mine the world around them to create incredible art. Even with this incredible record, the most exciting thing about Big Thief is that they’re clearly not finished; they said 45 tracks were written for the album, and some of the versions that they road-tested for these songs didn’t even make the cut. The title track was a roaring rock song in the vein of “Not” when I heard them play it at the Ryman — here, it’s a moving, harmonic-led version that exists as a salve after the country throwdown of “Spud Infinity” (Side note – when she heard this record for the first time this morning, my girlfriend was scanning the tracklist looking for “Dragon”, the roaring rock song, and was completely caught off guard when she realized that “Dragon” had become the beautiful title track). The naming of their debut as Masterpiece was sometimes seen as a cheeky joke, although I’d argue that it sits near the top of indie music for that decade — with Dragon, we have ourselves a certifiable masterpiece that will continue to impact listeners for years to come.