One of the most notable (and one of the best) albums of the year is called U.F.O.F. by Big Thief, a band wholly unique in its modesty and its apparently telepathic interplay. Inscrutable, elusive and at the same time very real and tangible. Jordi Lammers was there when the band played in the Netherlands this summer and saw what else makes the band from Brooklyn so special.
Written by Jordi Lammers
Foto’s: Dustin Condren
During Best Kept Secret last summer, the American folk band Big Thief did something that few artists dare. The foursome stopped playing in the middle of the opening track 'Real Love'. They took their fingers off the instruments and watched drummer James Krivchenia pull out a whistle from his pocket. Moments later, the crowded tent listened to the song of a bird.
The moment on Best Kept Secret fits perfectly with the way the foursome uses nature in their music on the recently released U.F.O.F. The songs on the album can be compared to a forest in which everything is in contact with each other, an ecosystem in which humans are only a small part of the big picture, not the center. According to frontwoman Adrianne Lenker, this was a conscious choice. When Pitchfork asked her why she barely sang about herself, she said she was done navel-gazing at other songwriters. With a turned-on voice she showed what she meant: "I wanted to, but I couldn't, and I feel that". An exaggerated imitation, of course, but somehow she had a point. Many folk artists who have made their breakthrough in the last twenty years are characterized by sad songs about personal problems. Think of Conor Oberst, Angel Olsen and Sharon Van Etten, artists renowned for their vulnerability.
It is not self-evident that people call the music of these artists folk when you consider that folk was traditionally a collective name for old songs by unknown writers. It was not the individual that was central to this traditional music, but the cultural characteristics of a group. Songs were the ideal means to pass on the history of a people. They create a sense of community, fraternization.
This changed in the second half of the twentieth century, when music increasingly revolved around the individual. The musician turned into a brand and a good brand required an authentic personality. Fans wanted to see people, celebrities who, despite their status, made you feel like they had a connection with you. A songwriter like Joni Mitchell fits this bill. Her vulnerable albums Blue and Ladies of the Canyon caused folk music to be associated with individual feelings such as loneliness and heartbreak. The names of popular Spotify playlists show how much this image has stuck. Back to the roots, the titles promise, but you hear artists who stay in bed musing.
Big Thief is an exception in this list. Where the previously listed artists often look inward, Adrianne Lenker sings about things that go beyond her own head. In eleven songs she takes you to a wonderful world full of plants, trees, animals and other natural elements. With this, her songwriting fits more with traditional folk music in which the relationship between people and environment was central than with the contemporary folk artist who places herself in the center.
The album cover of U.F.O.F.(the band lying on a lawn) fits in with this approach. With other artists, such a photo often has something uncomfortable. The band members pose quickly and then head back into town. At Big Thief it seems as if the foursome belongs there. Bassist Max Oleartchik is lying with his bare feet on the grass and Adrianne Lenker with her hood looks like a fairytale witch who has a small wooden house in the woods. They are completely embedded in their environment.
This connection with nature is reflected in the lyrics. In 'Century' Lenker sings in a whisper about moths flying against the car window of the tour bus, in 'Orange', dogs bark at the stars and in 'Strange', a moon butterfly cries lime green tears. They are small observations that make the listener aware of a world that we pay little attention to in daily life.
Sometimes music and lyrics merge. On 'Strange' Lenker sings about a worm that turns into a butterfly. The song starts out monotonous, but then, somewhere in the middle, an unexpected chord change takes place. In the background you can hear a dreamy voice swell and within a few seconds the song has taken on a different shape. And take 'Cattails', in which the repetitive guitar enhances the feeling of endless travel and return. There is no verse, no chorus, just a constant rhythm and recurring text elements. It gives you the feeling that you are on the train yourself and looking at the passing landscape: “With the windows wide by my side / with the windows wide.”
Lenker sounds like an omniscient narrator who sees, smells, tastes, feels and hears everything. For example, on 'Cattails' she presents one enchanting image after another: the rustling bulrush on the water's edge, the lone duck on the large lake and the meteor shower over a motel. With these natural elements she shows how much influence the environment has on her. There is no clear distinction between the outer world and its inner world: they are inextricably linked. This does not mean that Lenker fully understands herself and the world. “You don't need to know why,” she sings over and over, “You don't need to know why when you cry.”
“All my songs are about making friends with the unknown,” says Adrianne Lenker herself, “If the nature of life is change and impermanence, I'd rather be uncomfortably awake in that truth than lost in denial”. It's about being in harmony with the unknown, not about controlling and subduing. Her view fits in with the idea of ecophilosophers such as Morton, Hamilton and Ten Bos who argue that the human sense of superiority over the rest of nature has caused the current climate crisis. plants and trees as friends, we would never have done them so much damage.
The current era is called the Anthropocene by the above ecophilosophers. In this era, the natural balance has disappeared and the climate and atmosphere are affected by human activity. The prospect? Floods, climate refugees, declining biodiversity and many more catastrophes. Little reason for optimism, therefore, says former thinker of the nation René Ten Bos in Dwalen in the Anthropocene. We're in the Anthropocene, he says, and we can't get out of it. That is why he stays far away from bite-sized solutions. People who come up with simple answers to such a complex problem, he says, only bring the world deeper into trouble.
But what is the right attitude towards the future? To illustrate his ideas about this, Ten Bos raises the question of what to do if you get lost in the middle of a gigantic forest. He rejects the well-known idea that you have to walk in one straight line without changing course: you will automatically start walking in a circle. No, says Ten Bos, instead of trying to find an escape route as quickly as possible, you have to find a way to survive in the threatening environment: “The best way to get out of the forest is first of all to get used to the bunch. Try to feel more at home there.”
Big Thief's music fits this latter tactic. On U.F.O.F., they distance themselves from the unknown and try to embrace the strange. This makes the album a bit inaccessible at times. While a listener can easily identify with the autobiographical lyrics of a songwriter like Joni Mitchell, the images of Big Thief keep you looking for a point of recognition. Beautiful, I often think, but what does the frozen dove in 'Orange' say about me? And how do the moths in "Century" relate to my life? These are the questions that Lenker seems to be after, as an assignment to the listener to wander aimlessly, to look around you and to make contact.
Writer Amitav Ghosh argues in The Great Derangement that stories are crucial in imagining climate issues. Literature can make a vague picture of the future concrete. Palpable. Where scientific facts lull the imagination to sleep, a narrative awakens the imagination. According to ecomusicologist Holly Watkins, this also applies to music. She points to the power of music to transport listeners to another place. This doesn't have to be a place we already know, it could also be a new world, one that we have yet to shape. Watkins writes: “As much as music can connect us to local ecologies, it can also transport us into alternative realities, into virtual environments of its and our own synergistic making. It has the ability to send the listeners to certain regions of their imagination, which can either enhance their sensitivity to the environment or disconnect them from it.”
Transporting the listener to an alternate environment: That's what Big Thief did when drummer James Krivchenia pulled out a whistle and let the full house listen in silence to a bird's song. For a few seconds they gave the audience a way out of the crowds that seem inevitable at a festival, a door to a place where it was still quiet, where the birds were still chirping.
The rest of the day, I kept looking up.
Editor's note: this article was originally published in Dutch. Some quotes may have been altered in the translation.