New York indie-folk outfit Big Thief have been touring constantly for four years in conjunction with their first two full-lengths: 2016’s Masterpiece and 2017’s Capacity. Their new album U.F.O.F. was largely informed by their relentless touring schedule and the band’s heightened personal and musical synergy. According to a press release, some of the songs were recorded just hours after they were written. As a result, the album contains more supernatural vapors than their two previous releases. U.F.O.F. also includes new versions of “From” and “Terminal Paradise,” both originally written and recorded for Big Thief vocalist Adrianne Lenker’s 2018 solo album abysskiss.
Lenker’s bloodcurdling yet somehow sublime background shrieks against Buck Meek’s sauntering blues guitar build a warm bonfire on album opener “Contact.” It’s the kind of slightly ambiguous, conscientiously-woven love song—to either a real-life lover or an imagined one too perfect and beautiful to be personified—that makes Big Thief so enchanting. The title track also plays on these tendencies, but in an even more abstract and descriptive narrative form. Lenker’s elemental metaphors possess a distinctly occult beauty (“The best kiss I ever had / Is the flickering / Of the water so clear and bright / To leap in, my skin”).
It’s not surprising nature poetics Big Thief have a song called “Cattails”—it’s more surprising it took them this long to write a song with that title. Jokes aside, on this track and others, Lenker writes with an idyllic wonder and palpable tenderness that pervades classic children’s literature (“Where the cattail sways / With the lonesome loon / Riding that train in late June / With the windows wide by my side”). One of Big Thief’s greatest assets is Lenker’s ability to achieve emotional and poetic precision in plain spoken English. On “Open Desert,” Lenker sings in heartbreakingly bleak detail, “After all my teeth are gone / After all the blood is drawn / The white light of the waiting room / Leaking through the crack in the door.” “Orange” could easily be an abysskiss track or an older Big Thief cut, but Lenker’s compassionate observations (“Crying little rivers in her forearm”) with a bare acoustic backing are always welcome.
“Century” puts on a clinic in understated vocal richness. Lenker’s hushed voice and Meek’s reassuring backing vocals interlock in a tale of earth and its inhabitants’ unified energies. The peppy guitar shuffle on “Strange” is a little out of character for Big Thief, but its lyrics of moths, fruit bats and fairies will remind you who you’re listening to. You’ll also find some of Big Thief’s most affecting and openly affectionate love songs to date (“Jenni,” “Betsy,” “Contact”).
This album’s blustery whooshes contribute to an otherworldliness not yet wholly strung together on a Big Thief album. The sonic wisp of “Contact,” the celestial lyrics of “U.F.O.F.” and the cacophonies that close “Cattails” and “Jenni” all contribute to an incorporeal sheen. On U.F.O.F., Big Thief embrace their more subtle and mystical sides while capturing a wider array of landscapes—the cosmic (“U.F.O.F.”), bucolic (“Cattails”), domestic (“From”) and urban (“Betsy”).