Premature Evaluation

Premature Evaluation: Adrianne Lenker Bright Future


This album is a small miracle. Please don’t take the following as a backhanded dismissal of Big Thief — if I was picking the best album of the 2020s so far, I’d have to give serious consideration to Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You — but I remain amazed at what Adrianne Lenker gets up to when she gets away from her main band and from the world at large.

As with her pair of 2020 solo albums, songs and instrumentals, Lenker recorded Bright Future in a remote woodland area with co-producer Philip Weinrobe. Like those albums, her new one is strikingly intimate, with minimal arrangements that forgo distortion and a drum kit. But this time, they switched from a cabin in Western Massachusetts to a different New England studio called Double Infinity, newly established in a 150-year-old building, and they invited a trio of collaborators who didn’t know each other very well. The official line is that they were not intending to make an album, but what else are you making if you head into the woods with friends and an 8-track recorder? (I guess you could be making a horror movie; “three strangers invited on a mysterious woodland getaway by a quirky, off-kilter genius” does sound like the plot of a horror movie.)

Joining Lenker and Weinrobe on this fall 2022 recording retreat were Mat Davidson, Nick Hakim, and Josefin Runsteen. On Bright Future, they cycle through different configurations, the subtle shifts in instrumentation create a nice variety of arrangements, a small-scale version of the sonic skips and jumps within a Big Thief album. Davidson, aka Brooklyn alt-country artist Twain, split time between piano, guitar, and violin. Hakim, the Queens-based psychedelic soul artist, played piano too. Runsteen — the Swedish composer, arranger, and producer — contributed violin and percussion. They all lent their voices to the recordings as well, with Lenker laying the foundation on acoustic guitar and Weinrobe popping in on guitar, piano, or banjo as needed. Together, they have incredible chemistry — enough so that Lenker should consider keeping this unit going in parallel with Big Thief. Let that band rock out with its own special pan-genre alchemy, and keep the quiet stuff for this ensemble. Or maybe with Bright Future, they captured a magic that would be impossible to reproduce.

The album begins with one of Lenker’s most stunning songs to date. “Real House” is her recollection of childhood experiences painful and profound. The lyrics are written stream-of-consciousness style, like Phil Elverum or Benji-era Mark Kozelek, but they’re sung, not spoken, against Hakim’s deep, reverberating piano chords. Lenker’s melodies are tender, sweet, and open-ended, her memories rendered in poetic yet plainspoken language: “When I was seven, I saw the first film that made me scared/ And I thought of this whole world ending/ I thought of dying unprepared.” She sings of scary hospital visits, the excitement of moving into a “real house” for the first time, the crushing death of the family dog. The effect is a little bit Joni, a little bit Sampha, a little bit Bill Callahan.

From there, the record continues to strike a seemingly impossible balance between the familiar and the uncanny. Lenker’s lyrics are mostly homespun and direct, addressing common experiences of life and love with an uncommon empathy. On the quietly glittering “Free Treasure,” written with Big Thief bandmate James Krivchenia, she brings a smile to my face with this bit of scene-setting: “You’re cooking dinner/ It’s gettin’ round half past 10/ I haven’t smelled food so good since I don’t know where and I don’t know when.” The more robust, country-tinged “Sadness As A Gift” offers deep thoughts on the struggle to synthesize gratitude into life’s darker corners: “We could see the sadness as a gift and still feel too heavy to hold.” Even when she turns to symbolism, it’s usually not a puzzle to interpret but an epiphany to contemplate.

Yet for all the relatable realness of Lenker’s words, the sounds she and her friends captured at Double Infinity often come across as alluringly alien. That’s especially true of “Fool”; its translucent thicket of guitar and piano belongs on a Books album. But even when the tones are more organic, they take on a supernatural glow. (Call it the For Emma effect.) On “Evol,” Lenker’s quivering voice evokes both fragility and strength, backed by gorgeous piano and violin that almost seem to emerge from the speakers and encircle your listening space. On “Candleflame,” you can hear every nook and cranny in the instrumental textures. All throughout the album, the effect is like being in the room with these people and some benevolent presence.

There are moments that threaten to break the spell, if only slightly. Although possibly based on real-life experience, the “Ruined” lyric “You just gave me an amethyst from your jeweled vest as you cried” is like something you might come up with if parodying Lenker’s earthy hippie/folkie persona. “Vampire Empire,” which immediately became a Big Thief all-timer upon its release last year, appears here in stripped-down form, with brittle guitar strums and an accompaniment like a swirl of fireflies. It’s pretty, it gives Bright Future a nice kick in the middle of the tracklist, and it’s entirely possible it was recorded before the Big Thief single. But knowing how resounding the full-band version can be, this take can’t help but feel lesser.

These kinds of critiques are ultimately nitpicking on an album that feels more impactful with each listen. I loved Lenker’s previous solo records, but Bright Future easily outclasses them. She’s operating on another level right now. Her songs offer glimpses of the classics here and there — “Cell Phone Says” evokes early Dylan, while “Ruined” takes me back to the fog of Wilco’s “Reservations” — yet no matter where she pulls inspiration from, the output is all on her own unmistakable wavelength.

To wit: “Donut Seam” — a reflection on seizing the day and savoring the moment, set against the backdrop of a worldwide climate emergency — is a song no one else could write. “This whole world is dyin’,” Lenker and her cohort sing. “Don’t it seem like a good time for swimming/ Before all the water disappears?” It’s haunting, thought-provoking, and a balm for the soul all at once. And yet, is the verse melody mirroring… “American Pie”? The choice would be ridiculous if it wasn’t so perfect. Moments like those, when Lenker executes maneuvers that few artists could pull off, make me think of the part on “Real House” when she flashes back to her childhood fantasies: “So many dreams of flying/ Rising high over the crowd/ And they’d go, ‘Oh man, look at her go!’/ And I’d go.”

Bright Future is out 3/22 on 4AD.

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