When undertaking albums that deal with heavy subject matters such as romantic bitterness and accepting death, there’s a fine line between proceeding through these emotions constructively and wallowing in pity for an entire album. Thankfully, the latter does not happen here. What Lenker and guitarist Buck Meek offer up is an album that is genuine and insightful not only in lyrically, but in the manner this real-life romantic duo match together in vocal and guitar timbre.
The opener “Little Arrow” is awash in static and acoustic reverb, as Lenker coos by herself until the cassette tape player abruptly shuts off, as if she was spooked off. Meanwhile the title track, “Masterpiece” is a whole different beast altogether. She duets with musical and life-partner Buck Meek, to refined electric guitar and full band that captivates by means of 180-degree turn.
Lenker’s vocal prowess becomes more apparent throughout “Real Love.” The combination of her calm but assured declaration that “real love is a heart attack,” combined with Meek’s chaotically jarring guitar, symbolizes the struggle between bottling up emotion and lashing out. At the 3:40 mark, Meek’s representation wins out, taking over the rest of the track as a frenzied solo that decimates the entire room, much like an episode of blind rage in the grieving process.
The most powerful songs aren’t always the ones where Meek’s guitar goes into overdrive. “Paul” is meek, yet drips with bitterness while sounding so sweet. It’s a hazy recollection of a time when everything’s perfect with a former lover, yet the thoughts are tinged with the shitty and horrible place in which they left you. Lenker’s final line delivery of “I’ve been burning for you baby since the minute I left” perfectly encapsulates this bleeding of past and present torment into one lump of tangled emotion whenever these sudden fits of introspection arrive in our heads.
The album excels at switching from robust rock to moving ballads and back. By the time the 11th song “Randy” rolls around, however, we’ve already heard some form of it. There’s a formula at work and, up till now, it’s been under the radar, yet the variation begins to dwindle at this point. As a penultimate song, exasperation shouldn’t be the first word that comes to mind.
The finale “Parallel” swells and swells, but goes out on a hush rather than a bang. One can argue this choice is more fitting as an end, since it goes with the nature of coping and shaking off the numbness involved. “I see all the parallels” Lenker croons as both mantra and epiphany, her voice echoing and distorting as the full band gets sucked into the void right along with their leader.
Big Thief ultimately nail the different shades of reckoning and self-introspection on their Saddle Creek debut. Many listeners will no doubt identify with and see pieces of their own struggles inside this album. Despite some slight drag towards the end, Masterpiece speaks true to its moniker.