Adrianne Lenker’s songs Is Beautiful and Ugly in All the Best Ways

The Big Thief vocalist remains one of today’s most essential songwriters

Music Reviews Adrianne Lenker
Adrianne Lenker’s songs Is Beautiful and Ugly in All the Best Ways

Everything Adrianne Lenker puts her name to could very well be the best thing she’s ever done. She’s best known as the frontwoman and songwriter of Brooklyn-based indie-folk band Big Thief, who released their debut album in 2016 and quickly became critical darlings, and Lenker herself became a particularly influential vocalist. Big Thief arguably had their biggest year to date in 2019, releasing two albums, U.F.O.F. and Two Hands, both with exceptional thematic artistry and effortlessly pretty songwriting. Their music has an immediacy, rawness and poetic beauty that makes most indie-folk sound inconsequential, and that’s largely due to Lenker’s unique voice—twee but not quite, motherly yet childlike, and utterly compassionate—and lyrics that turn common language into the most touching metaphors imaginable.

When Big Thief’s tour was cut short back in March, Lenker decided to retreat to a cabin in the mountains of Western Massachusetts to record an album. Space and nature, after all, are hugely important to her work. Lenker’s last solo full-length was 2018’s abysskiss, an album where dreams can lie in pillows, wagons can carry desire and time can count us just as well as we can count it. It was a fully acoustic effort, with some of her best-ever songs, like the devastating “Terminal Paradise’’ and the spellbinding “Out of Your Mind.” Its melodies’ ebbs and flows were unusual, but the hooks were impeccably strong—masterful, even. While her new follow-up album songs (which comes with an accompanying two-track instrumentals album) is much more melodically understated, it’s similarly driven by an intoxication with the beauty of minutiae—glances, brushes and thoughts.

With songs, Lenker hones in on the duality of life. Love can be pure or manipulative, intimacy can indicate separation or closeness, and pain can be soul-crushing or relieving—and all these realities still lurk beneath the surface even when one has more clearly manifested. Lenker thrives at highlighting these contradictions, recognizing how much more precious life is when there are counterbalancing forces. She sees beauty in scenes of despair (“Through the jail / See the sun”) on “two reverse” and imagines playfulness from notoriously vicious birds (“The raven playing hide and seek”) on “ingydar.” Most dramatically, she envisions a scene where a daughter helps her mother float towards her own death on “come,” urging bluntly, “Come help me die, my daughter.”

Lenker is focused on arrivals and departures, whether those are emotional fluxes or the literal comings and goings of various characters she describes. In this tragically fleeting space she cultivates, emotions are heightened. Lenker is certainly fascinated by death, life’s grand departure, but she doesn’t see it that way. On “ingydar,” she paints an elaborate scene of a decomposing horse, affirming that “Everything eats and is eaten / Time is fed,” and she captures another visceral exit (and potential near-death) on “anything,” where a severe dog bite results in a drive to the ER and a patient being put “on risk.” “half return,” on the other hand, reads like a somber homecoming (“Standing in the yard, dressed like a kid / The house is white and the lawn is dead”), and “zombie girl” recounts a terrifying brush with a zombie, who fades away once the narrator’s sleep paralysis has worn off.

There are frequent allusions to messy relationships where the burning desire to reap their fruits remains, like on “two reverse,” where she wonders whether her unshakable commitment to a partner is healthy, or on “not a lot, just forever,” where she describes ugly, dramatic scenes of an abusive partnership. “dragon eyes” also conveys a yearning to move past rocky moments and seek pure companionship instead, as Lenker grows tired of “Chewing a cigarette and repeating / Shadows of the words I’ve said.”

Lenker places supreme value on visceral encounters with others, no matter how painful the experience or how flawed those people are—there’s an unrelenting reverence towards humanity, and it’s spiritual in nature, but never abstract. She loves humanity so much that she writes about pulling close the face of someone she was once afraid of, and includes several mentions of kissing someone’s eyes. She also uses personification to emphasize this appreciation: On “forward beckon rebound,” there’s “Wind that laughs like a clown” and a sun that bleeds on “my angel.”

These tracks are among Lenker’s most striking and emotionally nuanced. While it lacks the musical dynamism of abysskiss, songs’ lyrics are more potent and detailed. Much like Big Thief’s, Lenker’s music emboldens the listener to think about their mother and dig through photos from their childhood, and not out of typical sentimental longing, but a deeper, primal desire to love and be loved. Lenker is capable of convincing listeners that her memories are their own, just by way of her precise, warm descriptions. There are faint nods to Lenker’s own family, as well—“ingydar” was named after her great-aunt Becky’s horse, and both album covers for songs and instrumentals are watercolor paintings by her grandmother.

With several albums under her belt, Lenker is still finding new meaning in the natural world and seemingly trivial encounters, and her ability to transform the familiar into something so artful and profound makes her one of today’s most essential songwriters.

Lizzie Manno is an associate music editor, Coldplay apologist, bread obsessive and lover of all things indie, punk and shoegaze at Paste. Follow her on Twitter @LizzieManno

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