The prospect of a “quarantine album” from Adrianne Lenker is immensely appealing. Granted, that’s true of any new music from Lenker, the Big Thief singer-songwriter who in recent years has emerged as one of the most talented and magnetic figures in underground music. Furthermore, disappearing into a remote cabin to record new music with a barebones setup sounds like something Lenker would do even if coronavirus had not forced all of us into isolation this past spring. As this pandemic-thwarted year rolls on, more and more musical artists are emerging from lockdown with new albums they completed in the empty space where a bustling 2020 was supposed to be. But Lenker’s earthy, mystical persona and her gift for piercingly intimate folk-rock lend themselves especially well to the format.
So it was exciting when Lenker announced that she had recorded not one but two albums while holed up in Western Massachusetts this past April, two self-explanatory sets called songs and instrumentals. She wrote of driving a pickup truck from Brooklyn to a one-room cabin that “felt like the inside of an acoustic guitar,” of an 8-track tape machine fried by unstable electrical wiring and replaced just when she and producer Phil Weinrobe had resigned themselves to recording on a Walkman, of cooking meals on a wood stove and bathing in the nearby creek. (“There’s no plumbing in the cabin,” Weinrobe told The New Yorker. “You poop in a bucket.”) It all sounded sufficiently mythic and entirely within character, which only heightened the already towering expectations for Lenker’s first music since U.F.O.F. and Two Hands, the pair of 2019 albums that sealed Big Thief’s place in the upper reaches of the modern indie rock pantheon.
The results of this creative retreat, out Friday, are as agonizingly pretty as you’d expect. Given the power of Lenker’s raw yet delicate soprano, the only real surprise is that instrumentals might be better than songs — or at least “music for indigo,” the first of the two lengthy tracks that comprise instrumentals, is the most striking and immersive piece of music across both discs. Mind you, it’s all extremely immersive. Lenker recorded into a binaural microphone, which essentially brings you into the cabin alongside her. You quickly begin to understand the space’s unique sonic properties and why Lenker felt compelled to record there. No recording takes advantage of that sense of place more than “music for indigo,” which follows Lenker through 21 minutes of gorgeous arpeggios and harmonics, down lush musical pathways and into fascinating cul de sacs, all while a thunderstorm rolls in and out of the area. Listening on headphones one night, I was certain it must be raining in my neighborhood, only to repeatedly look out the window and discover clear skies.
The second instrumental, “mostly chimes,” lives up to its name, for better or worse. Although it begins with more echoing guitar reverberations, it quickly becomes even more abstract than its predecessor — so abstract that it at times evaporates into nothingness. Its 16 minutes contain lengthy stretches in which one or two tones ring out softly and disappear into near-silence, leaving little more than the whispering wind for minutes on end. A meditative work that comes closer to a field recording than a song or even a composition, it will either test your patience or lull you into a state of tranquility. I respect it more than I enjoy it.
Between those poles falls songs, as strong a collection of material as Lenker has assembled so far. Owing to both the production and Lenker’s sharpened songwriting, songs is brighter and more immediate than abysskiss, the solo album she released in 2018. It begins with a warm flurry of guitar notes on “two reverse,” on which we learn this is not only a quarantine album but a breakup album. “Lay me down so to let you leave,” Lenker sings, her voice fluttering against her chiming guitar. “Tell me lies, wanna see your eyes/ Is it a crime to say I still need you/ Crime, wanna feed you.”
From there, with possible exceptions like the familial reckoning “half return” and the morbid “come,” Lenker continues surveying the fallout from a romance gone awry. Mostly she does so via trembling and wooly numbers that resemble the Staves or Phoebe Bridgers tapping into the vibe of early Iron & Wine — except Lenker and Weinrobe present these songs in crystalline clarity without sacrificing that live in-person sensation, so songs never resembles a hushed lo-fi artifact. In fact, it rarely resembles an artifact at all. Every time you press play Lenker seems to be breathing this music to life right now, in this very moment, and she’s chosen to let you in on her private grief. For some artists, this would be the context for a discomfiting listen, a sense that you’ve invaded someone’s privacy or they’ve shared too much of themselves. But even when she’s a wreck, Lenker is a calming presence.
Sometimes she channels her sorrow into nakedly minimal songs like “zombie girl,” on which Lenker is left but nothing but dreams of her ex and the unanswered question, “What’s on your mind?” It’s a reminder of how staggering Lenker’s writing can be, how much emotion she can wring from just her voice, a guitar, and some distant birdsong. Yet the album’s highlight is one of its most layered productions. Built from translucent fingerpicked chords and guided by the rhythm of a handheld shaker, the aching lead single “anything” shimmers with a celestial beauty unmatched in Lenker’s catalog so far, as if lit up by a supernatural mirrorball that has manifested out of thin air. “I don’t want to talk about anything,” a multi-tracked Lenker laments. Eventually, she offers an alternative: “I wanna sleep in your car while you’re driving/ Lay in your lap when I’m crying.”
Again and again on songs, we hear Lenker longing to be in the presence of someone she loves. The same sentiment is implied in the ruminative flourishes and wide open gulfs of instrumentals — that desperation to close a gap that cannot be closed. The reasons for Lenker’s alienation apparently run deeper than the factors that have kept so many in this world separated from their friends and family this year, but the intense feelings she conveys here are congruent with humanity’s pervasive desire to go back to some kind of normalcy that can never truly be reattained. In that sense, these records capture the mournful spirit of 2020 far better than cutesy pop songs about standing six feet apart or being stuck indoors with your partner. Futile as her quest to salvage this particular relationship may be, by documenting it, she has forged a much more universal connection.
songs and instrumentals are out 10/23 on 4AD. Pre-order them here.