Arts, Music, Review

Big Thief’s ‘Two Hands’ Reaches Out with Mixed Results

Adrianne Lenker, lead singer and lyricist of Big Thief, has never shied away from intense vulnerability in her songs that pair emotional balladry with vivid, natural imagery. Coming off another successful album, UFOF, earlier this year, Lenker and Co. deliver more sad songs that, unfortunately, are not able to hold the listener’s attention long enough to tell their story. 

This is clear in the Two Hands opener “Rock and Sing.” The song functions as a campfire lullaby—Lenker’s angelic, whispery voice coupled with a soft, plucking acoustic melody. While soothing and soulful, it fails to catch the listener’s ear. It is a song to fall asleep to long after the embers have died out, not one to play when stoking the flames.

Despite the slow start, Lenker ups the energy with her trademark emotional lyricism in the following song “Forgotten Eyes.” She sings “Just trash and soiled needles, clawing the veneer / And no crying, but it is no less a tear.” Seldom holding explicit meaning, Lenker’s lyrics serve to instill emotion and feeling in the listener rather than explain a specific story. While Lenker’s allusions to drug addiction with “soiled needles” may feel singular, the sadness behind the lyrics is universal. 

Other songs on the album, such as “Two Hands” and “Wolf,” build on the theme of lost love found in Big Thief’s previous work. In “Two Hands,” Lenker sings “New plans, tell me who / New friends, I can make some too,” letting her former lover know after she asks him what his “new plans” are that she is moving on and can make some “new friends.” While lost love may cripple others, Lenker lets us know that she has moved on and is indifferent to her former lover. In fact, Lenker gets the last laugh in this song, ironically telling her former lover when he comes back, “New plans, I’ll tell you who / New friends, you can make some too.”

In addition to its subject matter, “Two Hands” is important because it exemplifies the close connection Big Thief’s music has to the tone of Lenker’s lyrics. In the songs before it, the drumbeat was slow, lumbering, and burdened by the sadness conveyed by Lenker, especially in “Forgotten Eyes.” In “Two Hands,” the drumbeat and guitar instrumental both increase tempo, mirroring Lenker’s elevated confidence and ability to move on from her former lover. 

While other contemporary bands often employ repetitive, bland drum machines and over-produced guitar melodies beneath their lyrics (sorry Imagine Dragons), Lenker and Co. succeed in bringing another voice into the conversation with the emotion conveyed by the music. 

“Shoulders” is undoubtedly the best song on the album and features the best of the band’s folksy, acoustic twang combined with Lenker’s confessional, vulnerable songwriting. Unlike a lot of Lenker’s songs, this one has a clear meaning. Lenker tells a tragic story of a daughter who comes home to find her mother beaten to death by her father, Lenker crying out, “Please wake up / Please wake up” to no avail throughout the song. What provides the true depth and conflict, however, is Lenker’s painful understanding that “Who’s killing our mother with his hands / Is in me, it’s in me / In my veins.”

Lenker’s fiery rage burns into the next song “Not,” which includes repetitive lines of denial almost all starting with “not” or “nor,” drawing parallels to John Lennon’s intense condemnation of all unworthy objects of worship in “God” from Plastic Ono Band. And while the meaning of this song seems unclear—unlike Lennon’s song—it is no less vivid and compelling songwriting, a testament to Lenker’s ability to connect with the listener like some of the greats. 

The anger that builds during this song reaches a breaking point with Lenker’s fierce snarl two minutes and 24 seconds into the track, rivaling even that of the beat drop one minute and 40 seconds into “Mo Bamba” (trust me on this). While Sheck Wes isn’t exactly the type of artist one would expect Lenker to emulate, it is unfortunate that the raw emotion conveyed in this song does not at least ripple out toward the end of the album. 

The record ends like it started, unfortunately bland. Lenker does not need to end the album with an epic finale but the last two songs, “Replaced” and “Cut My Hair,” are neither moving, quiet ballads nor stirring, vengeful anthems. Perhaps the album’s biggest problem, though, may simply be the standard of Big Thief’s projects and Lenker’s songwriting. They have proved that they can deliver phenomenal folk-alternative music (i.e. earlier albums Masterpiece and Capacity) and, despite this mixed-bag project, will certainly be back with more great music in the future.

Featured Image by 4AD

October 21, 2019