Adrianne Lenker’s place within today’s indie rock scene is a bit of an outlier. It’s not that modern rock has no standouts, but differentiating between the styles of Julia Jacklin, Indigo de Souza, and Snail Mail, all of whom have put out exceptional albums in the past six or so years, can often feel like splitting hairs. 

Big Thief’s sound, on the other hand, is instantly identifiable. As their frontwoman, Lenker’s characteristic combination of hippie naturalism and transcendental angst is certainly a part of that, but her rough–around–the–edges compositions are equally fundamental to their sound. 

Lenker’s solo albums are more instrumentally sparse—her 2020 previous albums songs and instrumentals feature just Lenker and an acoustic guitar— magnifying the organicism of her songs. When Lenker released the lead single “Ruined,” in anticipation of her new solo project, I was concerned. In the rare moments that Big Thief has gotten creative with 21st–century electronic sound, it generally hasn’t gone well, like on their rare dud “Little Things.” Upon first release, "Ruined" didn’t seem to warrant a relisten. The piano ballad enters with a plodding rush of Eno–esque ambient noise, whose repetitive lyrics are fine, but probably not worthy of the spotlight they are granted by the lack of backing instrumentation. 

On the heels of two new Big Thief songs, “Vampire Empire” and “Born For Loving You,” as well as their most recent album, Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You, all of which showcase Lenker at her most ragged, twangy, and fun, I had little enthusiasm for a solo album full of songs that sound like inferior first drafts of Big Thief's 2017 “Mary.”

Thankfully, that is not her newest album, "Bright Future"

From the opening track “Real House,” which opens with the click of a tape recorder and intimate studio ambiance, it’s clear that the melodic and production choices of this album will be very intentional. Lenker’s stream–of–consciousness storytelling ambles laggardly, unmarred by dense, fully fledged production. The lack of chorus, minimal melody, and barrage of small details within the lyrics all help to bare Lenker’s soul from the album's first moments. Each of Lenker’s words hangs on for a split second longer than it seems it should, allowing—perhaps forcing—the listener to contemplate her every solemn word. 

The nakedness of Lenker’s lyricism on this album is matched by its somber tone, even in fuller sonic moments such as on “Sadness As A Gift.” Lenker opens the track by seemingly composing herself with a muttered tempo count, offering herself and the listener a chance to catch their breath before sharing another few bare emotional moments with one another. Violin backing is hardly new to Lenker, who has included breakneck fiddling on a number of Big Thief’s recent compositions, but its role in this track is slowed, stripped down, and far more beautiful than fun. The brief crescendo with which it opens, each instrument coming in at its own slightly distinct moment, is clearly that of an early take, but the bones of the song are the product of mastery and perfectionism. 

This is where Lenker is at her best, as a friendly sayer of truths that few others could convey. There are moments where Lenker treads the fine line between pushing the boundaries of this formula and abandoning it entirely (with mixed results), but “Fool,” the third track on the album, errs more towards the former than the latter. Its production is more pronounced than on the first two songs, but it remains sparse, unpolished, and lyrically compelling—its incessant character vignettes reflect the simultaneous mundanity and gravity of the real world.

A particularly impressive strength of this album is its cohesion. Rather than appearing like a randomly assembled collection of similar songs, it takes the listener on a rigorous and winding journey. A couple of slowed–down fingerpicking tracks follow “Fool,” building tension and painting meticulous pictures before the downhill sprint of “Vampire Empire.” A hoedown–adjacent country rock song that Lenker screams over when performed by Big Thief, Lenker’s solo version is reduced to its essential parts. She speak–sings over a rollicking acoustic guitar with few accompaniments. 

Lyrically, the song is far more straightforward than most of the others on the album. Gone are the vivid portraits and myriad characters. In their stead is a one–sided lover’s quarrel about the contradictions of loving an imperfect person. Lenker lends the song its necessary gravity through her words, but magnifies them immensely with her unyielding instrumental. The song was already great when performed by Big Thief, but Lenker’s bravely unadorned presentation of it is somehow a vast improvement.

If the album has any bad moments, it’s the next song, “Evol,” (pronounced like “evil”) on which Lenker sings, “Love spells evol backwards, people.” It would be an absurd lyric in any context, but on an album that, up to this point, is a veritable poetic masterpiece, it’s incredibly distracting. I have no idea what she was thinking. It’s not even especially melodically or instrumentally compelling, either, and is the only song that perhaps should have been on the chopping block.

Thankfully, “Candleflame,” whose few words are sweet and whose melody is genuinely catchy, brings the album back on track. The banjo riff on “Already Lost,” reminiscent of Loudon Wainwright III, adds texture to the minimalistic instrumental palette of the album. Lenker’s multi–tracked vocals are haunting, and the song’s fast tempo deftly tees up another emotional comedown on “Cell Phone Says.” 

I’m a bit more open to the wordplay on “Donut Seam” than “Evol” for whatever reason. Perhaps it’s just that when Lenker sings “This whole world is dying / Don’t it seem like a good time for swimming,” it’s easy to ignore the pun and pretend the title is just “Don’t it Seem.” I’m still not sure what the significance of the title is (beyond a slightly out–of–place attempt at humor in an otherwise highly self–serious album), but the song itself is a pleasant listen, with choral vocals atop a spectral guitar and piano duo. 

It also neatly ties together the album, as it places many of the observational slices of life that litter the album within a retrospective context, remembering the little moments before they fell apart. This disintegration is further expounded upon by “Ruined,” which closes the album. Although I still don’t consider it a highlight on its own, its repetitive lyrics and obvious post–production offer a detachment from the album’s personal intensity, closing the album with grace, maturity, and a new perspective that warrants reflection. This is an album that will stick with you well after listening.

Although the first half of the album is better than the second and it has a small handful of confounding decisions, those flaws are only worth remarking on because the vast majority of this album is basically perfect. It’s intense, raw, emotional, and clearly created by one of the very rare artists capable of pulling it off.