Many writers swear that the true skill and challenge of crafting something great is the editing process. Anyone can be creative, they say; anyone can access that wellspring of imagination within themselves and let it rush like a waterfall over a blank page. A true artist is one who can belabor over their ideas, sift through the dust to find gold, and refashion their uninhibited abstractions into a project their audience can interpret and hopefully understand. In other words, great art is never effortless.
Listening to Big Thief on their expansive double album Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe You is like coming upon a profound exception to that rule.
That’s not to say that Dragon feels like a first draft. What it really sounds like is a band who happened upon a road that leads straight to musical alchemy. Big Thief recorded Dragon in four distinct periods and places (upstate New York, Topanga Canyon in California, the Rockies, and Tucson). They connected and reconnected with themselves, collaborators like Scott McMicken of Dr. Dog and Mat Davidson of Twain, their instruments, and the natural world over the course of these trips.
On “Spud Infinity,” Adrianne sings of “accepting the alien you’ve rejected in your own heart.” This is the type of labor it feels like the band is most interested in doing on this album. Over the course of twenty tracks, they encounter a sort of dream state brought on by the chemical reaction between Adrianne’s songwriting and the band’s musical chemistry. The result is serendipity in the form of soundwaves.
Dragon is a musical ecosystem teeming with life, just like the world it describes. Dozens of flora, fauna, and other natural phenomena like rainbows and planets decorate Adrianne’s lyrics. She employs them not only as images but also as arbiters of meaning (the opening track “Change” is the simplest and most obvious example of this). “The atom is an empty vase, a vehicle to know embrace,” which she sings on “The Only Place,” distills the ethos of the project best, an ethos that the band didn’t set out to communicate but rather discovered along the way. The natural world is not just the laboratory in which human beings experience love and loss; it also gives them the language to make sense of those experiences.
Like its subject matter, the album sounds so organic that it’s easy to miss its sheer orchestral breadth. Synth, accordion, flute, and fiddle are dotted throughout the project to add color to its folksy skeleton. The litany of percussive instruments on songs like “Time Escaping” imbue the album with an underlying, windy chaos, while jaw harp adds childlike whimsicality. There are quite a few tracks that are unabashedly twangy (“Red Moon” the most of all), and “Flower of Blood,” “Blurred View,” and “Little Things” are all vintage-wash rock. But most of the songs on Dragon focus on percussion, acoustic guitar, and Adrianne’s vocals; it’s a folk album more than a rock album.
Although Lenker has long been known as one of the best songwriters in the indie scene, her consistent profundity on this project is astonishing. Taking cues from the great architects of folk, like John Prine and Bob Dylan, she uses simple phrases and electric images to create lyrics tangled with meaning. “Simulation Swarm,” one of the best of many excellent songs on the project, is the song of a writer who simply can’t stop writing. Adrianne’s voice glides over her own guitar picking as she delivers a litany of human experience in perfect poetic time, her waterfall of creativity completely uninhibited. One review can’t begin to highlight the lyrical richness of this project, and it’ll be months before listeners will be able to collectively travel down its infinite roads of meaning. But it’s instantly obvious Adrianne is truly one of the greatest of her time.
Although the album cover is sparse, depicting a whisperingly light pencil drawing of woodland animals playing music together around a campfire, it represents its contents more profoundly than most covers do. Big Thief managed to distill their musical language to its most elementary, animalistic state and used it to reconstruct the world around them. The resulting magic arises from their wordless camaraderie, the chemical, creative solidarity emanating from the music like the steady glow of a neon sign above a roadside bar. Big Thief are the group of people gathered on its dark, wooden stage, doing the impossible and making the room feel like a home for all passing through.
Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe You is out now.