Album of the Day: Big Thief, “Capacity”

Adrianne Lenker’s music is an engaging diary of her hardscrabble life, from her candid lyrics to the personal photographs that grace her albums. On the cover of her new release, Capacity, with her band Big Thief, Lenker’s uncle holds her as an infant. His piercing stare correlates tangentially with lyrics from “Mythological Beauty,” her most straightforwardly autobiographical song to date. “I have an older brother I don’t know / He could be anywhere.” She casts outward, hoping for a reconnection that grows more distant with each passing day.

On a recent interview for the NPR All Songs Considered podcast, Lenker speaks to host Bob Boilen on how making music assists with her coming to terms with the past: “I feel like my capacity for loving and understanding who I am, where I come from, my family…is always growing through the songs.” This is a distinct progression from Masterpiece, Big Thief’s first LP that largely presented her ruminations on unique people (“Paul,” “Lorraine,” “Randy”), places (“Vegas,” “Interstate”), and entities (“Humans,” “Animals”). No longer sufficed by one-step-back storytelling, Lenker takes on the demanding process of revisiting her childhood on Capacity, but chooses to meet the painful moments with a emotional strength born from empathy.

The bracing manner of her retelling an assault on “Watering” finds her regaining control over trauma. Elements of mortality appear throughout: tears, blood, oxygen, skin, sexual fluids. Lenker’s perspective changes from storyteller to active participant, speaking as her present self: “And you know that I’m there / As you soak in my stare.” As “Watering” finishes on a tender note, Lenker relieves her younger self of the pain and guilt that has festered for too long.

Big Thief attunes their music to fit the finer details, as on “Shark Smile,” where a harrowing tale of losing someone in a car accident is met with classic rock gravitas. The entire song plays like The River-era Springsteen, sparking with the insistent riffs of a midnight road trip as Lenker’s escapism runs into reality: “It came over me at a bad time / She burned over the double line / And she impaled as I reached my hand for the guardrail.” Her last lines spark with a hint of regret, but abruptly let go with the track’s hard stop.

As the album concludes its excavation of Lenker’s past, the atmosphere on the later songs becomes solitary and therapeutic. The necessary determination of electric guitars and painful recollections dissolve into acoustic instruments, subtle rhythms, and meditative serenity. Accented by organ hum and solo piano, the chorus on “Mary” works as a focused mantra, sweeping away bitter remnants with lilting elegance.  For the whole of Capacity, Lenker and Big Thief firmly take the wheel of each song’s narrative, spinning together threads of memories and events, weaving them into newfound empowerment.

—Matt Voracek

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