The latest album from the Big Thief singer evokes a singular, solitary chill. With a great imagination for melody, Lenker conjures a world of mingled trauma and love.
Adrianne Lenker dies within two minutes of her solo record abysskiss. It is not a dramatic passing. Over feather-light fingerpicking, she simply sings, “See my death become a trail/And the trail leads to a flower.” Her voice is sweet, the tone muted, nothing but her breath and guitar strings. The transformation sounds peaceful, maybe even a relief, a dispersing of stored energies.
Lenker recorded abysskiss quickly, in about a week, and the entire album has this exhaled quality. It doesn’t feel worked over, or rushed—it feels focused and unconcerned with your comprehension. The palette is muted and spare, exactly one electric guitar chugging away quietly on one song (“out of your mind.”) The rest of the album seems to be rustling toward some private horizon, a gleam in its eye. You don’t listen to it so much as follow it, the way you might track a wild animal that showed up in your yard. It is pastoral music, but not a barefoot-in-a-field way; more of a don’t-eat-these-berries sort of way, a world of mystery and menace whose secrets will always be held from us.
As the leader of Big Thief and on her own, Lenker writes powerfully about secrets of all kinds. The shared secrets of intimacy, the buried secrets of family, the impenetrable secrets of nature—they all swirl like sediment in a wine glass. abysskiss thrums quietly with the unease of these secrets, of mingled trauma and love. “Hold me in your heat” she whispers on “terminal paradise”—an animal plea, a child’s plea. On “out of your mind,” she sings, “My love pulls the trigger on you,” and on “10 miles” she kisses a lover “very hard and wild.” Her path is a prickly one, somewhere between savage and tender.
You don’t hear the savagery at first. It takes several listens before the delicate fingerpicking and the whisper of her voice turns dark. Her lyrics accrete alarming imagery in quick clumps, in the “little red flower on your wrist” on “blue and red horses,” or the “sharp glass loosing of your best friend” on “what can you say.” The characters in her songs always seem one wrong step away from leaking blood or spilling someone else’s. The more time you spend cocking an ear to her music, the more foreboding her world seems, the more likely it will end in pain.
This world is not that far removed from her work in Big Thief, but there is a solitary chill here that isn’t only or entirely because this is her solo work. Her songs for Big Thief bustle with characters, people with places and names and specific histories. She was a person rooted in and tethered to society, tweaking and exploring its bonds with her writing but still embedded within it. abysskiss is a taste of what Lenker’s imagination can do when it is set free down its own dreamy paths, away from these shared histories. There are almost no names here, just a world of beauty and terror, of worms dropped into beaks, horse tails flicking away flies. She is like Annie Dillard in her 1974 Pulitzer prize-winning book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, a dreamy soul wandering alone in nature and marveling at the brutality and the grace she finds there.
The album is also a quiet showcase for her melodic imagination. Fingerpicked acoustic guitar is the sort of medium that reveals the kind of musician you are at your core—like playing solo Bach, it leaves you with nothing to hide behind. You can learn the basics of the technique in two hours and then spend a lifetime getting lost inside the possibilities. The best and most inventive players treat the acoustic guitar more like a harp—Elliott Smith, Kurt Vile, Jessica Pratt—and Lenker has this same flickering touch. In her hands, guitar notes fan outward into little constellations. The chord voicings never settle entirely, just like her voice, which can sound soothing or alien, depending on her inflection. The mix of feelings—seething disquiet, lurking menace, breath-to-ear intimacy, lurching uncertainty—brings to mind the Elliott Smith. As with his music, you can read detect almost any intense emotion in its quiet thrum if you need to find it there.
She closes the album, as she opens it, with her own death. She is in someone’s arms this time, and there is a brief hint of the older, more sexualized meaning of “to die.” The song is called “10 miles,” and it is the closest we get to the warmth of Big Thief. She and her lover wake early on a farm. They feed horses. They read together. But it turns out that “nothing is real,” and this too has been a figment of Lenker’s imagination—the woman of the song is ten miles away. Lenker is still alone, dreaming aloud, and as the album ends, she is once dying once more, gazing up into the sky.
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