This article originally appeared on God Is In The TV
“Struggle is inherent in love,” says Adrianne Lenker, frontwoman of Brooklyn quartet Big Thief. That struggle is the defining feature of the band’s debut album, Masterpiece, a folk-rock record that allows Lenker and her bandmates examine “the process of harnessing pain, loss, and love, while simultaneously letting them go.” While that might all seem quite heavy and semi-existential, the Brooklynites handle the topics with such flair on Masterpiece that it’s hard not to be completely taken in.
For proof that Big Thief do much more than talk a good game, you only need to refer to the title track. ‘Masterpiece’ is a story of grief, led by a driving guitar riff and Lenker’s world-weary, lilting voice. As with the vast majority of the record, a lot of the joy lies in the song’s forthright yet emotionally astute lyrics, with Lenker expressing her desperation and exasperation in lines like “there’s only so much letting go you can ask someone to do.” The single ‘Real Love’ starts as a quiet, downbeat number that belies its tempestuous lyrics (“Having your face hit/ Having your lips split/ By the one who loves you” Lenker coos). By the climax, the guitars descend into a messy squall that perfectly represents the tale of abuse Lenker has woven before it. It’s easy to hear why Sharon Van Etten is a fan. Meanwhile, ‘Paul’ is an agonisingly sad tale of a broken relationship that’s musically understated but given all its unrelenting force through Lenker’s malleable, anguish-ridden voice. When she sings “Paul I know you said you’d take me any way I came or went/ But I push you from my brain/ See you’re gentle baby, I couldn’t stay/ I’d only bring you pain,” she makes it truly heart-breaking.
To break up the doom, Masterpiece also contains its fair share of lighter moments, at least musically. ‘Humans’ is a scuzzy garage number with a catchy, repeated chorus, while the DIY, lo-fi ‘Interstate’ is almost literally Big Thief’s version of a driving song. ‘Animals’ is vaguely reminiscent of Pavement or Weezer at first but morphs into something wonderfully peppy, with a playful, surf-inspired guitar solo that’s guaranteed to put a smile on your face. The band embrace folk more on the short but sweet ‘Lorraine,’ where Lenker’s wistful voice and nostalgic lyrics are accompanied by gently picked acoustic guitar. The spirit of fellow Saddle Creek natives Bright Eyes is invoked on ‘Velvet Ring,’ another folky number with some beautifully wry lyrics. “Love is a gentle thing/ Yours is thicker than a velvet ring,” Lenker states but, really, what good is a velvet ring? Wouldn’t it chafe the adjacent fingers?
The little question marks that develop over ‘Velvet Ring’ are representative of the way Big Thief draw the listener into their narratives on this record. It’s an almost astonishingly good collection of alt rock and folk songs made even better by the faultless storytelling and completely believable level of emotionality. Love is a struggle, but falling head over heels for Masterpiece isn’t.