Five months ago, Brooklyn band Big Thief released the critically–acclaimed album U.F.O.F., which Pitchfork named not only one of the best albums of the year, but also one of the best of the entire decade. Now, Big Thief is already back with a new album titled Two Hands, recorded in the desert outside of El Paso just days after U.F.O.F. had been completed in the forests of Washington. While U.F.O.F is lush, surreal, and psychedelic, Two Hands is a different companion—raw, dark and unguarded.
The opening track, “Rock and Sing,” is about vulnerability both in the lyrics and vocals, the band capturing a complete sense of being exposed. The vocals of the lead singer, Adrianne Lenker, are delicate and warm as the lines “Cry with me/Cry with me,” feel like a quiet catharsis.
The following track, “Forgotten Eyes,” released as one of the album’s singles, is equally vulnerable and honest. Singing of the "forgotten eyes," "forgotten hands," and "forgotten tongues" that escape us, there’s an overwhelming sense of lost love and human connection. The band perfectly captures the full weight of regret and nostalgia. One of the last lines of the song “everybody needs a home and deserves protection” serves as a powerful reminder of the desire to belong, to be named and known. What's so impressive is how prophetic Big Thief can be in just a few lines.
In this album, individual characters are lost in the passage of time and in the feebleness of memory. As in many songs, they form a narrative full of characters playing their own short starring roles. It's not clear who Lenker is specifically referring to when she speaks of "hims" and "hers," but you get the sense that these characters represent personalities and experiences humanized. In doing this, Big Thief amplifies the banalities of human life. Feelings of confusion and discomfort are not softened and sugar–coated, but embraced. In the album's short duration, the listener is invited to let their guard down and to just listen.
In “The Toy,” the meaning of the song is mysterious, wrapped up in metaphor and imagery, yet powerful emotions still remain. Among some of the songs on the record that have been around for years as live favorites, "The Toy" feels at home. Lenker maintains her ragged and raw vocals, and the lines are delivered in a way that's just as sincere as before. Crescendoing into the next track, “Two Hands,” the album’s title track, Lenker’s vocals come on stronger. If the previous songs capture vulnerability and openness, then this one is about defiance. Through all the ups and downs of human life and emotion, Big Thief reminds us that “somehow we exist.”
The album takes a bit of a darker turn in “Those Girls” and “Shoulders.” These tracks zoom into the human experience of despair and trauma. The line “And the blood of the man who’s killing our mother with his hands is in me, it’s in me in my veins,” in “Shoulders” feels overwhelmingly violent and intense. Likely a reference to the environmental destruction of the earth at the hands of humans, this lyric serves as an effective, attention–grabbing line. While Big Thief has been known to explore the harms that have always occurred in the human experience, the message of this song is poignant and timely.
The album reaches its climax on “Not,” in which Lenker sounds almost breathless and her singing nearly turns into shouting. The background instrumentals are chaotic and clamorous. The energy on this track builds perpetually until it crashes into the next track. Opening with the lines "It’s not the energy reeling, nor the lines in your face, nor the clouds on the ceiling, nor the clouds in space, It’s not the phone on the table." After each line, the listener is left wondering what it is, if anything?
As the album reaches its resolution with the songs “Wolf,” “Replaced,” and “Cut My Hair,” there’s a return to the album’s original softer side. Feelings of anger, confusion, and fear are resigned to calmness and acceptance. The resulting tracks are inviting and warm, serving as songs that could be sung around a campfire and displaying the band’s talented folk roots.
On Two Hands, Big Thief is as bare–bones as music can be. As U.F.O.F. connected the listener to the unknown and strange, Two Hands brings us back to earth. The pain, discomfort, and uneasiness explored on the album don't feel alienating, but rather create a deep connection between the band their listeners. The recordings of the song are crisp, but not pristine in order to maintain a sound that's completely natural and earthly. Expressing human experience so honestly and vulnerably, the band effortlessly captures a range of emotions. The resulting album is unifying and empowering, complementing the band’s already strong discography.
Big Thief are playing a sold–out show at Union Transfer, Saturday, Nov. 20 with support from Palehound. More info at https://bigthief.net/tour/