Premature Evaluation

Premature Evaluation: Big Thief Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You

4AD
2022
4AD
2022

You’ve heard Big Thief. What Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You proposes is: What if Bigger Thief?

At this point, with eight of 20 tracks already out in the world, you probably realize this is a winsome prospect. Maybe that was a given. Over the course of four albums and hundreds of live shows, Big Thief spent the past six years establishing themselves as one of the most consistently compelling bands in music today. They seem to slide effortlessly across various polarities — from folksy to futuristic, from playful to deadly serious, from somber ballads to searing rockers — while thriving both as studio tinkerers and a stage-wrecking unit. When we look back on this moment in indie rock, they will be among a small handful of era-defining acts, a band that has both shaped and transcended trends and tropes. As I wrote upon seeing them live in late 2019, Big Thief are already legends. But a double album is quite the heat check.

Get the NBA Jam announcer guy in here, then, because this band on fire. There are so many reasons Big Thief’s latest could have gone wrong, so many ways it could have gone wrong. Twenty tracks totaling 81 minutes would be a slog from most artists, and it’s not hard to imagine how such a fate could have befallen a band with this many slow jams and quirky affectations — especially if, like me, you’ve never fallen completely in love with any one Big Thief album and were won over by the live show most of all. Beyond the double-LP format’s baked-in potential for trying our patience, Big Thief have reached the phase of their career where they could easily start to coast on past goodwill, or when persona (in this case, the sense that Adrianne Lenker, Buck Meek, Max Oleartchik, and James Krivchenia are less a band than a mystic hippie commune with instruments) could curdle into shtick — a legitimate concern with every new anecdote about bathing in rivers and each weirdly wardrobed promo photo.

But DNWMIBIY is not one of those event albums propped up by warm feelings about an artist’s back catalog. It isn’t padded out with filler, and Big Thief are not doing a bit. Upon further reflection, even the potentially eyeroll-inducing title Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You perfectly encapsulates the spirit of this project: earthy, empathetic, loosely fantastical, lightly preposterous, long but earning its length, earnestly optimistic in the face of struggle. As sonic adventurers, as a collective organism, as vessels for a range of piercing emotions, Big Thief have never been more exciting. Somehow, their double album is their best, most consistently engaging album yet.

It’s also their first not to be produced by Andrew Sarlo. Instead, throughout the second half of 2020, Krivchenia oversaw sessions in four parts of the United States with four different studio engineers: at Sam Evian’s studio in the woods of upstate New York; with Grammy-winning eccentric Shawn Everett in Topanga Canyon; with U.F.O.F. and Two Hands engineer Dom Monks at a “castle-like” studio in the Rockies outside Telluride; and at Scott McMicken of Dr. Dog’s home studio in Tucson, where they were joined by Mat Davidson on fiddle. In each locale, they leaned into a different side of their sound, forgoing the tightly focused aesthetic of each prior Big Thief LP. The resulting sonic jumble has big White Album energy — not the cartoon wackiness so much as the feeling of never knowing what’s around the corner, of disparate songs hanging together by virtue of sheer quality.

Unlike the Beatles, Big Thief are led by one main singer-songwriter, and her vivid lyrics and free-ranging warble function as throughlines too. Lenker begins Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You pining for an ex on the gently brutal “Change,” sketching out big-picture thoughts about the passage of time only to sneak up on you with her own heartbreak like a knife to the gut. She ends the tracklist loopy and carefree, peppering the psychedelic honky-tonk romp “Blue Lightning” with come-ons like “I wanna be the shoelace that you tie” and “I wanna be the vapor gets you high.” Her path from one to the other is anything but linear; there are moments of harrowing intensity, like the revisionist biblical allegory “Sparrow,” and beaming levity, like the part near the end of country rave-up “Red Moon” where Lenker exclaims, “That’s my grandma!” Her voice sounds as good gliding in tandem with a flute on “No Reason” as it does voraciously howling on “Love Love Love.” As a writer, she’s deeply personal and holistic; more than ever, her creativity seems to reflect all sides of her personality.

The music on Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You mirrors and even exceeds that versatility. Listening to the album is a bit like tuning in to a well-programmed college radio station or skipping from favorite to favorite on your average indie rock fan’s phone. At times Big Thief evoke Radiohead’s bleary electronics (“Blurred View”), Soccer Mommy’s effervescent melancholia (“Flower Of Blood”), or Wilco in their Jim O’Rourke-assisted prime (“Simulation Swarm”). The sparse, finger-plucked “The Only Place” is like Joanna Newsom singing Elliott Smith. Often, they sound like no one but themselves, though that can mean very different things from song to song: “Time Escaping,” a brittle plastic future wrung from synthesizers and prepared acoustic guitars, segues directly into the surreal lovestruck hoedown “Spud Infinity.”

More than anything, this is a document of four musicians with incredible chemistry. The songs rarely sound belabored, perhaps thanks to Krivchenia’s preference for first takes. But how many bands’ first takes sparkle like this? Even the rare weak spots — like the road trip chronicle “Wake Me Up To Drive,” with its drowsy vocals and lo-fi programmed drums — are more rewarding than the sound of most bands at their best. “I’m learning that we can’t not be Big Thief,” Lenker recently told Pitchfork. “Even if we’re trying something and it’s not working, what makes something us is just that we did it together.” Right now, though, so much of it is working so well. Bring on the triple LP.

Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You is out 2/11 on 4AD.

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