Published on May 15th, 2019 | by Noah Dimitrie0
Big Thief – U.F.O.F.
Brooklyn band Big Thief take big chances again, to wonderful results, with their new album U.F.O.F; it’s Noah’s favourite album of the year so far.
On Big Thief’s 2017 sophomore album ‘Capacity,’ the band switched up their tempo, opting for an engagingly demure approach to their songwriting. Rousing and upbeat electric guitars present on their debut — especially on songs like ‘Vegas,’ ‘Real Love,’ and ‘Masterpiece’ — were placed on the backburner for instrumentation rooted in a softer and more sobering side of the band, along with a more varied musical palette. This tonal shift brought out frontwoman Adrianne Lenker’s haunting lyricism and lead guitarist Buck Meek’s crafty musicianship, trading abrasion for more complex melodies. As a sophomore record, ‘Capacity’ dodged the classic “slump” through its willingness to stand on its own, to be self-contained in its meaning.
Two years have passed since that breakout album and the band has toured the world playing the likes of ‘Mary,’ ‘Shark Smile,’ and ‘Mythological Beauty.’ So, when they announced the third record ‘U.F.O.F.’ a few months ago, I wondered with a cautious optimism if they’d be able to take another leap or if they were satisfied to define themselves indefinitely by what was universally acclaimed as a “breakthrough.” Much to my delight, the answer leans resoundingly to the former. Big Thief, with their latest nosedive into the deep angst of the human condition, have proven themselves to be a band born out of an allergy to complacency. Like any great band, they charge fearlessly into undiscovered territory as a means of artistic survival. One gets the sense that they will never, in their (hopefully) long career, “shut up and play the hits.”
‘U.F.O.F.’ is as impressionistic as a vintage Monet. I did not believe this was possible, but the four-piece Brooklyn outfit has managed to make ‘Capacity’ sound conventional and, frankly, heavier in comparison. Embracing the alien motif that the record’s title invokes, the first two tracks, ‘Contact’ and ‘U.F.O.F’ establish a tranquil eeriness through seductively ethereal vocals and sharp acoustic guitars. Out of the gate, they are upfront about what they are trying to accomplish; if their last album was about slowing things down, this one is about freaking you out in the most beautiful way imaginable. Lenker stretches her angelic voice in new directions, offering up animalistic screams on ‘Contact’ that are so clearly existential and impossibly guttural. Philosophically, they set the tone for a journey inward, not as much into the human condition, but into the fragile imperfection of memory and perception. “Just like a bad dream…,” Lenker softly croons during the chorus of the album’s title track, “…you disappear.”
As the album moves along, the band’s vision takes shape. This record is coated in acoustic guitars for the most part, only using electric instrumentation in very calculated moments. Strikingly, the melodies are complex–almost math-y at times–and their repetition adds to the alienating sensibility that this record inundates the listener with. “From,” “Open Desert,” and “Betsy” hammer home the soft, yet distinctive eloquence of Lenker’s message without feeling vague or paltry in execution.
“Cattails” and “Century” are probably the most conventional-sounding tracks, fundamentally groovy and relatively upbeat. Yet, even those songs bear a striking juxtaposition of comfortability and cold distance, the kind that makes the heart yearn in nostalgic, relatable ways. The band coherently constructs an experience of disorientation with one’s own memories and emotions. And whether the sound is haunting or lovely, it always demonstrates a commitment to this premise. Throughout the album, the music romantically persists that life is a beautiful cacophony of impressions.
‘U.F.O.F.’ reaches an apex with ‘Jenni,’ its penultimate track. It is a resoundingly noisy change-up for the group that feels pitch perfect in contrast to the tranquil uncanniness of the album’s previous songs. Chaos furls out of this track like the smoke of sweet-smelling incense, Lenker’s voice croaking to the track’s thunderous percussion. It’s a remarkably raw sound, and one that digs deep into the ennui that is so innate in this album, tying it together as a memorable and unique collection of songs. Overall, this record is such an overwhelming experience precisely because it is so committed to its aesthetic. And that commitment, I’m sure, took a great deal of courage from Big Thief, a band that could easily settle for writing ‘Marys’ and ‘Shark Smiles’ for the rest of their careers. Alas, it may be their least accessible, but it is their crowning achievement — one that will get under your skin or stuck in your head and never get out, much like a vague memory or a quaint moment of pure beauty. It is the best record I’ve heard this year.