Big Thief’s sophomore album “Capacity” feels like a vessel for lead singer Adrianne Lenker to process her tumultuous life. Hers has been a life that is purpose made for storytelling; spending her earliest years in a cult, almost dying in a freak accident, spending years living out of a van, earning a scholarship for a prestigious music school.
These stories of love and loss, of violence and healing and of friendship and family, all come together to create the intimate Capacity. It feels as though you’re reading someone’s diary, a certain feeling that you shouldn’t know all this about another human being. Dark and personal lyrics are complimented with Lenker’s soft, tender vocals, while her bandmates create swirling melodies that package up raw, painful moments and offer them with a serving of finger-picked guitar lines and steadying drum beats.
This mix of overtly dark lyrics and soothing music can be somewhat unsettling. This is the case on Watering especially where Lenker details an assault from the perspective of both the victim and the perpetrator. The lyrics are violent and distressing (“He cut off my oxygen / And my eyes were watering / As he tore into my skin / Like a lion”) with multiple refrains of the word “screaming” particularly unnerving. In the break between the point of view switching between victim and perpetrator, Lenker’s “oohs” almost sound more like she is screaming or wailing than singing.
This, the most disturbing moment on the album, transitions to Coma. A delicate track that begins only with guitar chords before gradually, harmonizing voices and restrained drums are introduced. It feels as though Lenker is staring blankly into the distance as she tries to come to terms with how her body has been violated. When she sings “when you wake up / you wake up…” it sounds as though Buck Meek’s finger-picked guitar line is gently awakening her from her “protective coma.” Despite the heavy subject matter, you could find yourself being lulled to sleep by the hushed vocals, so soft they’re almost a murmur.
Lenker also has a penchant for delivering matter-of-fact statements in such a way that they are deeply affecting. On opening track Pretty Things she makes sex seem almost like a religious ritual; “Holding my wrist to the bed / He was thrusting and moaning / And pressing his head / To my temple / His head was a temple.” Later on Mythological Beauty, the track that details the freak accident that almost took young Lenker’s life, she is blunt in her description of sex once again, peeling it back to its most physical elements, “Seventeen, you took his cum / And you gave birth to your first life.” Perhaps it is an attempt to humanise her mother or to make some statement about how all of us are the same, have the same urges, underneath it all. Or perhaps it’s just simply the way Lenker likes to write, prose among poetry. Much of Mythological Beauty is descriptive without embellishment and yet it is one of the most evocative tracks on the album. It conjures up memories of childhood; the sights (rented a house in Nisswa, Minnesota / shrapnel and oil cans, rhubarb in the yard), the smells (standing beneath the oak tree by the front door / you were inside baking bread), the sounds (you held me in the backseat with a dishrag, soaking up blood with your eyes / I was just five and you were twenty-seven / praying, “Don’t let my baby die”).
Mary, named after Lenker’s best friend, unfolds in a similar way, evocative and nostalgic. It’s a stream of consciousness, an outpouring of memories – floods on the plains, clothes pins on the floor, marching up the mountain, cheap drink, the marching band… The decision to use a piano and organ for the recorded version of this track (Lenker uses a guitar live) differentiates it from other tracks on the album. The twenty-five year old singer-songwriter’s voice is haunting against the background of the piano and organ on the sprawling track, confirming it as one of the standout moments of the album.
Capacity finishes with Black Diamonds, a foot-tapping, humming along kind of song. Max Oleartchik’s chilled-out bass line, Buck Meek’s lilting guitar and James Krivchenia’s drums combined with Lenker’s hushed assurance “You could cry inside my arms / you could cry inside my arms like a child / you could cry / you could cry…” create the perfect conclusion to an album that is full of tragic and painful moments that somehow still leaves you feeling warming by the time you’ve reached the end. From violent assault on Watering to near death on Mythological Beauty, Lenker invites us into the world of Capacity in which scars are created and healed, and there’s catharsis to be found in that release.
Rating: 4/5 stars