Big Thief at Shepherd’s Bush Empire, 02/03/22-05/03/22
Adrianne Lenker at EartH, 06/03/22
“The new album by @BigThiefMusic is a revelation,” tweeted Dwight from The Office this weekend. “Can I have permission to compare Adrianne Lenker to Bob Dylan?” Permission granted: the parallels are inescapable – and thickening.
When I followed Big Thief on tour in 2020 (not that I like to go on about it), I wrote:
I leave muttering something about Lenker being the only New Dylan since Dylan. You know in ‘Love Minus Zero’ when he sings, “My love, she speaks like silence”, or ‘Visions of Johanna – “The ghost of ‘lectricity howls in the bones of her face” – well no-one writes like that. But Lenker does. Not like Dylan, exactly –because what’s special about that? – but prolifically singular, with his perfect abstract specificity. “Your eyes were like machinery,” she sings in ‘Mary’. “Your hands were making artefacts in the corner of my mind.”Perhaps the most exhilarating aspect of seeing either artist live, though, is that their songs are never finished: they’re in a constant state of flux, developed organically through being played to an audience. How a song sounds on record is just how it happened to sound at the point it was recorded. Or in the words of Dylan at the Free Trade Hall, “It used to go like that, and now it goes like this…” Take the title track of Big Thief’s latest, for example. Lenker introduced it in a whispered, half-written version at an Islington church in 2019. Last month it debuted on record: a wispy rendering so delicate that you feel if you breathed on it, it might blow away. By the time the band takes to the stage at Bristol, it has become a chugging, unremitting post-punk song, with a jagged, slashing guitar riff.
Or listen to ‘Not’, included among Obama’s songs of 2019, and essentially the band’s anthem nowadays. Reviewing the following year’s tour, I called it “an explosion of cathartic anguish … a list song that exalts through endless negation”, but there was release there: a rush of respite in Lenker’s breakaway guitar solo. This tour, there is no release. The support band back then was ITHACA, a London thrash metal group, and a sign that Lenker’s interest in getting heavier was getting heavy. ‘Not’ ends now in an unforgiving squall that’s directed entirely inwards. The flurry of squealing, arrhythmic high notes whistling from Lenker’s guitar feel like clues to an emotion, not the emotion itself. In Bristol, the song becomes a 15-minute freakout. On the second London night, Lenker towers above the crowd during the solo, her face tortured beneath the lights, purging something. The next evening her dress starts coming down during the guitar break, like a stress dream for the ages. She doesn’t quite cut her losses, but let’s say that she doesn’t extend the communication with her muse.
Another interesting comparison with Dylan is how Lenker’s persona appears to be ageing in reverse. Dylan wrote ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ at 21, junked his political ideals in favour of creative ones with ‘My Back Pages’ at 23, and by 27 was writing throwaway country ditties. “Oh me oh my,” he sang that year. “Love that country pie.” By comparison, Lenker was a late starter: she didn’t put out ‘Indiana’, ‘I Still Hear You’ and ‘Steamboat’ until she was 22. But the three records (!) she released in 2014 feel like the crystallisation of late style: simple, pared-down, timeless. They are an old man’s songs. Perhaps her life has been back to front in a way: she married young, then caught up on her ‘freedom’ later.
Five years after that flurry of standards, Lenker would introduce a strange new tune called ‘Spud Infinity’, which mixes abstract cosmic imagery with twee nonsense poetry and sounds like what people who don’t like Big Thief think Big Thief sound like. Over time it has become a clarion call (and a merchandising opportunity: there is a long-sleeved ‘Spud Infinity’ t-shirt; I’m wearing it right now), and morphed from an ethereal poem into a wobbleboard-inflected album track and then a sing-along anthem. Appending an intro and outro centred around the words ‘lah-di-dah’, like an alt-folk Annie Hall, Lenker now takes a transparent on-stage delight in the song’s passages of trivial incoherence, as if Dylan had spliced bits of ‘Motorpsycho Nightmare’ into ‘Chimes of Freedom’.
That love of language for language’s sake is another parallel, surprisingly rare among songwriters. Think of the DA Pennebaker footage of Dylan in England in 1966, where he’s outside that cornershop, repeatedly re-arranging the words in his mouth, taking simple joy in the possibilities of a sentence. I was reminded of that before Lenker’s solo show at EartH last night, when she performed her customary, gentle duty of asking people who want to talk during the support act to do so outside. “If any of you have any social obligations that need to be… expressed verbally,” she said, “please do them in the… outer realm.” Aside from the humility, it felt like pure Dylan, right down to the mid-sentence giggle. But more importantly, it was pure Lenker: the perfect choice of words, inevitably straddling the mundane and the eternal. The similarities run deeper, though: it isn't just the elegant synonymising that draws these two artists together, it's the very sound of their syllables. Both his "majestic belts of bolts" and her "meteor show at the motel" are as much in love with the tongue as with the picture.
And yet sometimes words aren't enough. In 'Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands', after close to 10 minutes of cryptic love verse, rock music's most important poet simply gives up on the idea that his lyrics could ever do justice to Sara Lowndes' spiritual and aesthetic beauty, and finally picks up his harp. It's among the most moving moments in the Dylan canon, and finds an echo in Lenker's guitar solos: with words, she builds a dam; with sound, she sweeps it away. Her 2020 colllection of improvised instrumentals hinted at an artist growing tired of chatter, and in the title track of her accompanying 'songs' (which, paradoxically, also provided the name of the new Big Thief record), she made the feeling overt: time to trade the metaphysical for the purely physical. "I don't wanna talk about anything," she sings. "I wanna kiss, kiss your eyes again/Wanna witness your eyes looking."
Introducing it, she said it was to comfort the heartbroken, and it seems that she has had her own heart broken. If these shows have seen her between-songs chatter become more natural – spotlighting a sense of comic timing that was always present in her lyrics but previously buried beneath sheer awkwardness – they have also suggested that she is Working Through Some Shit. The climax of ‘Flower of Blood’ sees her assaulting the bridge of her guitar, bending it to within a point of snapping as the track ascends into pure metal; ‘Not’ is purpled with rage, ‘Shoulders’ flecked with spit. It can’t just be down to entering the world of ITHACA, though one wonders how the ambient support act KMRU might influence Big Thief’s next moves: the Bristol show is dominated by strange and extended atonal intros. The next night it’s mostly the new album, then the one after that is as close to a greatest hits show as this band ever gets.
The recent country music influence is largely (and somewhat thankfully) absent. Dylan’s dalliances with the genre have usually been tinged with embarrassment, especially at first: the acknowledgement, perhaps, that this is a small Minnesotan boy playing dress-up. And that’s how Big Thief have tentatively approached country too. If there’s a cringier moment in their career so far than Adrianne’s cry of “That’s my grandma!” during the new album’s square dance number, ‘Red Moon’, then it must have escaped me. I really struggle to understand the point of pastiche in music: it feels like a dollop of self-satisfaction where the heart should be. The band’s other country tune, ‘Blue Lightning’ – a cousin of Evan Dando’s impeccable ‘Being Around’ – is also hampered by its affectations, though Lenker’s preference for playing the song as a lolloping, languid chronicle of offbeat admiration (rather than the country bop favoured by co-conspirator Buck Meek) helps a little.
The first evening at Shepherd’s Bush, she makes her only concession to rock star ladder-climbing I’ve seen so far: playing the game for the three-songs-and-out photographers, striking a few poses, gently accentuating the facial mannerisms. There’s none of that at EartH, nor the breath-caught stillness of her full band solo spots. This is like she’s just picked up a guitar in a mutual mate’s flat and begun to cycle through new songs, cast-iron masterpieces (‘Indiana’, ‘cradle’) and deep cuts (‘Kerina’, an update of Dylan's 'Corrina, Corrina'), covering for flubs with self-deprecating quips, a genius in your front room.
She seems different there. But then she always does. Dylan once said, “I wake up in the morning and I'm one person, and when I go to sleep I know for certain I'm somebody else.” I’m certain that Lenker could relate. Her most popular song, ‘Paul’, is an ode to one of her alter-egos (“The last time I saw Paul, I was horrible and almost let him in,” she confides), and, most trivially, she always looks different. Last time she was rocking a Henry V pudding basin and then a long bob. This time she turns up shaven-headed, with a scar cut into one side. Across several nights, she’ll dye her hair blonde, and wear variously a vintage wedding dress, a Scarface t-shirt, a sweater that’s more holes than sweater, some sort of ornately-patterned kimono, and a see-through top (a bold choice, since there’s always the danger you’ll be upstaged by your own boobs). An enduringly enjoyable aspect of the Big Thief experience, too, is that the four members each look like they’re in different bands. Brian Epstein would shit.
After playing a tormented new number, ‘Happy with You’ – halfway between an accusatory mantra and a Cranberries song, an impression not dispelled by Lenker’s hairdo – she says revealingly that you “don’t need to explain love”, before launching into ‘Certainty’, probably the best love song she has ever written. Like Dylan’s ‘I Want You’ or his late-period ‘Nettie Moore’, it’s built around a statement of perfect, direct economy (“My certainty is wild”), and there’s something so desperately affecting about seeing her perform it with Meek, when one knows their back story. They were married young, they broke up, they still write and play together, and they perform this almost as equals, both playing acoustics, voices entwined like brambles over a grave. They love each other. It’s complicated but it’s simple. Like the song.
There are marked disparities, too, when it comes to their limitations. “Geniuses steal”, of course (the ‘Nettie Moore’ chorus I mentioned was a direct lift), but Dylan has always stolen too much and too often. If Lenker has a shortcoming as a writer, it’s that her auteurism can lead to a repetition of imagery. I regard myself as one of the world’s premier Big Thief botherers: I turned up an hour before doors every night to get on the front row of six consecutive shows, and there are still a handful of their songs that I get mixed up because they essentially trade in the same pastoral imagery or Biblical allusion.
Yet there’s more to the reconfiguring of material than musical evolution. I wrote in a Guardian piece a couple of years back that it took seeing Big Thief live to reveal the secrets of some of their songs, as if they had meanings that could only be communicated in person. Hearing ‘Simulation Swarm’ live was a great musical experience, but hearing ‘Change’ was an emotional and intellectual one. That track had left me cold on record – another lilting trip to the bucolic well – but now that I understand it, I love it. As the perfect closer to the fifth and final show, it unfolded not as a retread but as a soothing antidote to the depressed stupor of ‘Terminal Paradise’, seeing the vastness of nature’s pattern, not the bitter poignancy of a single death. You know, like ‘Every Grain of Sand’.
Lenker has, in fact, only ever recorded one Dylan song, a version of ‘I Was Young When I Left Home’ for an obscure recording studio project in 2015. It was the first song he ever wrote. Like him, she was so much older then. She’s younger than that now.