Big Thief’s sophomore album beautifully excavates family history and trauma into a delicate, intricately built folk rock record, showcasing the gorgeous style of singer Adrianne Lenker.
The Brooklyn quartet Big Thief did not name their debut Masterpiece because they felt it was flawless. Rather, Masterpiece painted the complex experience of being young and uncertain with a rare sense of humility: the highway becomes home, a romance between two reckless moonshiners ends for the fear of pain, a slap in the face is real love. But when a band enters the world with such a bold declaration of accomplishment, what do they title the work that surpasses their opus? Big Thief call it Capacity.
Though Big Thief—singer-guitarist Adrianne Lenker, guitarist Buck Meek, drummer James Krivchenia, and bassist Max Oleartchik—began recording Capacity just seven months after they finished work on Masterpiece, the unflinching accounts of death, domestic abuse, and primal romances that filled their debut have settled on their sophomore record. Stories pour out of Lenker’s mouth like an endless ribbon, bold and without friction. While the process of excavating such intense memories was challenging and painful, Capacity finds Big Thief firmly nestled in the catharsis. As Lenker sings, “For in the dark there is release.”
This idea that we contain opposing yet complementary forces is central to Capacity: We are mother and daughter, rearing and growing at once. Look to the record’s cover, which shows Lenker’s uncle holding her as an infant, dark hair slick on her soft skull. The adult Lenker so closely resembles her relative that at first glance she appears to be cradling a baby version of herself. “There is a child inside you who is trying/To raise the child in me,” she sings on “Mythological Beauty,” the record’s emotional centerpiece. The track adapts a horrific and bloody accident that befell her as a child as a means of empathizing with her young mother’s vast responsibility. “You held me in the backseat with a dishrag/Soaking up blood with your eye/I was just 5 and you were 27 praying don't let my baby die,” she screams, her voice and the guitars both tightening to their breaking points.
On the sweeping title track which thumps with crashing drums and wiry guitars, Big Thief intertwine the ideas of consonance, captivity, and capacity. “I am a beautiful bird/Fluttered and floating/Swollen and hollowed/For heaven,” Lenker declares in a manner that is both life-affirming and crushing. Earlier on the finger-picked acoustic opener “Pretty Things,” the narrator whispers to a lover, “There’s a woman inside of me/There’s one inside of you too,” an idea that is meant to suggest that the maternal urge inside each of us grants our survival.
There are times on Capacity where the intimacy becomes almost unbearable. When these moments occur, the band’s melodies serve as buoys to cling to for comfort. “Watering” and “Coma” tell of a traumatic assault and the character’s eventual awakening from the ensuing haze. There’s so much darkness contained in the former’s illustration of a poisonous, carnal relation, but Krivchenia’s drumbeat is there to offer the reminder of a heartbeat and sharp guitars jolt the subject out of dissociation. Though Lenker, Meek, and Oleartchik each attended a lauded Berklee College of Music program at some point in their life, Big Thief’s blend of intricate folk rock pulls more from ecstatic expression than academic practice. They are each technical musicians, but their songs are foregrounded with melody and emotion rather than fussy prowess. The first half of “Coma” is as isolated as the title suggests, just Lenker’s murmur and a guitar. As soon as the narrator builds the strength to wade into her new, changed world, the band arrives as her docent.
Of note is Big Thief’s use of names. Matthew, Evelyn, and Haley become a community of people through which Lenker invites us into the past and present of her life. Most movingly, there’s “Mary” dedicated to Lenker’s best friend, a love song straight out of the detailed schools of Joni Mitchell and Joanna Newsom. Over a gentle piano, Lenker pays tribute with a vivid catalogue of images. It’s so easy to find the wrong words for life, we do it every day, but here, Lenker’s verbal waterfall is a perfect abstraction:
Monastery monochrome boom balloon machine and oh
Diamond rings and gutter bones marching up the mountain with our
Aching planning high and smiling cheap drink dark and violent full of butterflies the violent
Tenderness the sweet asylum the clay you find is fortified we felt unfocused fade the line
The ease with which Lenker’s honeysuckle voice tumbles out, I could keep typing the lyrics forever.
Capacity is a remarkable record, one that proves that Big Thief are not a one-trick pony, they are the full circus. It is a complete journey, from the early collective cacophony of “Shark Smile” to the hypnotizing conclusion of “Black Diamonds.” There are bands with stories to share, wounds to rub salt into, loves to relive, but few address every moment with such adroit care as Big Thief. You can hear it as they revel in the darkest moments, rejoices in the later lightness, and fumble around for a sense of closure. Capacity is human, which seems to be all Big Thief desire.