Masterpiece, Big Thief’s debut album on Saddle Creek Records, comes across as a study in the power of vulnerability. This is Adrianne Lenker’s first record with her full band, and yet some of its best moments are when the songs are stripped, with lyrics standing naked against quiet guitar strumming. This is how the record opens, on a track called “Little Arrow” that’s a lo-fi lullaby, bare and brutal, though it is equally beautiful.
These dichotomies play out all over Masterpiece, as the honey-voiced Lenker sings about black lungs and split lips on “Real Love,” which is a musical tug-of-war acting out the peaks and valleys of the relationship described in the song. Again, on “Paul,” where she is the kind of girl who will be “the reason for our death,” where the music evokes the last lonely kid at the school dance, kicking his sneakers as the music echoes in the gym.
On the title track, Lenker’s voice is set against male “everyman” vocals (possibly of her longtime musical collaborated and current Big Thief guitarist, Buck Meek), which grounds this anthemic eulogy. This is the track where the full band really comes together in its most complimentary form – defiant, raucous and energetic in the way that makes you want to jump feet-first into the nearest lake.
Lenker exudes audible fun on these full-band tracks, but it’s the songs where her voice is given the spotlight that are the most moving. “Lorraine” is the love song we all long to be written for us; “Velvet Ring” is lovely and eerie, quiet and quick, and ends by melting into found sounds of what could be a playground of ghost children.
Masterpiece is a strong first album from a talented Brooklyn four-piece, and despite its statement-making title, it comes across more as a sturdy foundation for a wonderful musical career. If you seek a summer record that will fill you with peace or power, Masterpiece will deliver it.
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Cover photo: Sasha Arutyunova