Premature Evaluation

Premature Evaluation: Big Thief Two Hands

For a band whose most affecting moments are often gentle meditations or rock songs on the more elusive end of the spectrum, Big Thief sure know how to take a year by storm. Back in May, they released their third album U.F.O.F.. It was met with immediate acclaim from fans and critics alike; it’s one of the few 2019 albums that’s beginning to appear on the retrospective decade lists that’ll be rolling out through the end of the year. Greeted as a masterpiece out the gate, U.F.O.F. became the breakthrough for a band that was already beloved but not quite as big as their fans expected them to be. It was a victorious moment from a career standpoint, and a stunning artistic achievement. Even though they’d been prolific in the past, it would presumably take Big Thief a couple years to complete a proper follow-up.

This is not how the band approached it. Not even six months on from U.F.O.F., they have returned with Two Hands. It’s hard to overstate how deeply uncustomary this is in the year 2019, for a band on the cusp of greater notoriety and end-of-year dominance to not let that acclaimed new release sit and grow, but to rapidly follow it with a sister release. Big Thief are very obviously a band that thinks of these issues more abstractly and not from a business perspective, but in terms of career decisions this was a roll of the dice. It could muddy their year if it wasn’t as well-received, or it could be a power move — the swift answer of a new album distinct enough from U.F.O.F. yet still complementary, a new album with different stakes yet no less rich in its songwriting and depth. As you might’ve guessed, Two Hands is in the latter category.

People used to do this all of the time. If you look back at the catalogs of the great artists, the icons, from the early days of rock music, so much of it unfolded in very small windows of time. The Beatles, Dylan, Zeppelin — they all released multiple classics within just a couple of years during their heyday. It was expected that bands release albums at intervals of months, not years. But that’s just unheard of for a young indie band today. Maybe it’s historical perspective, but those artists were pioneers, innovating a whole new genre and culture. Today, it takes that much more effort for a young artist to discover their own sound within that history.

But more directly, there’s the circumstances of a shaken and diminished music industry, in which indie artists need to relentlessly tour to keep the endeavor alive, or to have any faint hope of someday actually making some money. You can’t churn out albums in that cycle, and it’s unlikely — especially if you’ve got an album like U.F.O.F. in the world — that the powers that be want you to. In addition to fighting an uphill battle financially, artists have to fight an uphill battle for people’s attention in an era that’s more saturated than ever.

So, unless you’re an aberration like King Gizzard, this automatically triggers a different perception of the quick follow-up album, or the companion release, even when it arrives as late as a year and a half afterwards and not as suddenly as Two Hands. When a band comes back positioning a new collection as a sister album that is more stripped-down than the intricate predecessor everyone’s still falling in love with, it immediately scans as leftovers or demos — something less complete or thought-through.

Two Hands is a rarity then, an album that truly stands on its own as a whole work, a whole vision, but also functions in conversation with U.F.O.F.. The way the band has talked about it sums it up well. If U.F.O.F. was mystical and enigmatic, concerned with the sort of questions that are hard to put into language, Two Hands is the more grounded of the two, the molten and arid sounds of the earth. As Michael Tedder put it in our recent cover story, “If U.F.O.F. is the spirit, then Two Hands is the body.”

There was an intricacy to U.F.O.F.. The songs were still often restrained and spare, but they were full of strange sounds lurking subtly in the backdrop, adorned with studio flourishes. Big Thief went to a celestial place there. And right after they finished painstakingly crafting that album, they decamped from the forests of Washington to a Texas border town to quickly record their other songs, the other album that wanted to come into being. And everything they did with U.F.O.F., everything that would soon garner them feverish praise, they abandoned for Two Hands.

Instead, this album was made raw and fast, close to live in the studio. There are very few overdubs; the arrangements are less textured. Just as U.F.O.F. conjured hidden corners of the world and the unexplainable, you can hear the band in the room, crowded together and sweating in the Texas heat, across Two Hands. There are sparse acoustic songs in which Adrianne Lenker’s voice is allowed to sit, clear as if she were playing across from you. There are songs where the band turns back up, more than they did at all on U.F.O.F., and hits that art-weirdo version of Crazy Horse they are able to approximate when they lock in together.

While Two Hands is a counterpoint to U.F.O.F. in style and approach, it also explores different territory thematically. Lenker’s writing here is more topical, grappling with societal issues like gun violence and the climate crisis. Earlier this year, Big Thief had already wandered into the unknown. And in every sense of the words, Two Hands in comparison is about the present and presence, a band getting as close as they can as people and arriving at a new document that is human and visceral.

In its best moments, this means that Two Hands goes to heavier places than we’d recently heard Big Thief go to. On “Forgotten Eyes” and “Shoulders,” Lenker sings over guitars that are fried and distorted, like breaths of desert air. Then there’s “Not.” The album’s lead single and standout, the song had appeared in Big Thief’s live sets before, and once we heard it recorded it immediately made itself known as a contender for their finest composition.

Big Thief have made plenty of rock songs in the past. The fact that U.F.O.F. lacked them made it an outlier in their discography; despite the widespread acclaim, it seemed a step further away from the more fiery live sound some fans had been waiting for Big Thief to capture in the studio. “Not” is where that fire sparks. A roiling, seething song, it begins tense and steadily ratchets up that tension as it goes. Lenker just keeps listing things, it’s not this and it’s not that, as the band continues to intensify behind her. She pushes her voice further and further, shaking and breaking, sounding desperate and furious in a way we don’t often, if ever, hear from her. Then, finally, the song bursts into that volcanic outro. It’s a marvel.

“Not” is the most violent and striking moment of Two Hands, but while it’s indicative of the album’s general disposition and aesthetic relative to Big Thief’s other work, it is not representative of the whole album’s style. This is the explosion sitting between many more moments of hushed patience, from “Those Girls” to “Wolf” to “Cut My Hair.” These songs are vulnerable — “Tell me I’m pretty/ Tell me I’m rare,” Lenker sings on “Cut My Hair.” In a sense they feel like the connective tissue with U.F.O.F., as if each album has some songs that could have existed with each other and then songs that exist at the far ends of the two releases’ respective identities.

But mostly the message in all of this is one of connection, whether you want to focus on the ideas Lenker’s addressing, or her characterization of Two Hands being “the blood and tissue and guts of being a human,” or the band’s own identification with each other. In between those more skeletal songs, the ones where Lenker almost sounds alone, and a torrent like “Not,” there exists these middle ground songs: the breezily pretty title track, or the languid yet pained “The Toy.” On these, you hear the band feeding off each other again, leaning on each other. This, too, is a rare thing in 2019 — to hear a band that is truly a band, separate people and outlooks that come together to make Big Thief’s sound, with the sense that if one person were removed from that equation, they would never be able to get back to that same place.

There will be people who still prefer U.F.O.F., and in some ways that one still feels like the bigger statement — whether by virtue of it coming first, or because of its stylistic evolution. Two Hands feels like the flipside to U.F.O.F. while also lining up a little more cleanly with Masterpiece and Capacity. These two releases wouldn’t have quite made sense as a double album, but you can still hear them as a truly linked pair. Whether you prefer one or the other might depend on your own biases within Big Thief’s work. Regardless, Two Hands completes their 2019, complicating and changing U.F.O.F. just as U.F.O.F. instantly informs how we approach Two Hands.

Big Thief’s rise has happened fairly quickly — their four albums have arrived within the span of three and a half years, with a Lenker solo endeavor in between — but it took a little while for everyone to catch on to what early fans heard. Simmering buzz finally came to fruition this year, taking them from a cultishly adored band that “you really have to check out” to one of the foremost names in the indie sphere. They’ve proven themselves as one of the most vital bands working today, pulling off the feat of releasing not one but two of the best albums of 2019. Maybe that won’t seem so unusual in the future. Maybe then Big Thief will just look like one of those greats from the past.

Two Hands is out 10/11 on 4AD. Pre-order it here and stream it below.