Big Thief Craft Their Own Modern Songbook on ‘Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You, the fifth album from American folk-rock force of nature Big Thief, isn’t so much a culmination of their career up to this point as it is the beginning of a whole new chapter. Like a butterfly freshly emerged from its chrysalis the album bears some of the markings of the superb four record-run that preceded it, but where the band once kept their feet more-or-less on the ground here they stretch their new wings and take flight; floating on the air over a sonic garden, stopping at each flower they see to taste its sweetness. They explore a stylistic smorgasbord across these twenty songs which coalesce around Adrianne Lenker’s writing to form its own universe, one that finds its cohesion, its unifying threads, in the bond between these four people rather than the specific sounds they might put out. 

Right off the bat the quiet and contemplative album-opener “Change” gives way to the hypnotic groove of “Time Escaping”, a song, unlike any Big Thief, has produced before. Over a heavy beat from drummer James Krivchenia (who also produced the album) and a percussive swirl of prepared guitar singer-songwriter, Lenker unspools a psychedelic lyrical tapestry, her words stringing together with poetic precision. Aided by violin and vocals from Twain’s Mat Davidson the band loosens up on country-rock jams like “Spud Infinity”, where Lenker infuses a dive down the metaphysical rabbit hole with John Prine-esque humor with lines about garlic bread, potato knishes, and our inability to kiss our own elbows, and “Red Moon”, a rollicking number that wouldn’t sound out of place on either of the Grateful Dead’s classic early 1970 albums or The Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo

Already one of her generation’s strongest songwriters,Lenker rises to new heights on this album; shedding some of the unsettling and at-times menacing touches she brought to past Big Thief songs like “Real Love”, “Shark Smile”, and “Shoulders” and embracing a lens of childlike wonder and connection to the universe that guides her through meditations on lost love, sex, and especially death. “I’m not saying I’m not jealous/Or scared anymore/I’m just saying” she sings on the refrain of “Promise Is a Pendulum”, casting her personal anxieties against the fabric of creation and finding peace in her lack of control over it all, while still finding that human connection might be the ultimate balance to the universe’s chaos on songs like “The Only Place” and the album’s gorgeous title track. The sheer amount of lyrical genius Lenker lays out on Dragon is impossible to fully capture in a piece like this, with each tune deserving of its own close reading, but you can find examples of her ability to make the complex sound simple on “Certainty”, her expert use of repetition on “Sparrow”, and her unparalleled knack for turning her vocabulary into its own instrument on “Simulation Swarm”.

There’s truly not a dud on the tracklist here, a remarkable feat for such a sprawling album, but one that makes sense when you consider that there were another twenty-six songs that didn’t make the cut. “Flower of Blood” and lead single “Little Things” both churn with feeling amid an almost claustrophobic mesh of indie rock instrumentation including a delightfully squalling lead guitar from Buck Meek, who also shines on the Neil Young stomp of “Love Love Love”, which he keeps teetering on the edge of chaos while the other three keep the groove locked tight. Meanwhile, the aforementioned “Simulation Swarm” snakes along on finger-picked acoustic guitar and Oleartchik’s fretless bass before Lenker rips it open with a crunchy, dexterous guitar riff that makes for one of the album’s most memorable instrumental moments.

With this album, Big Thief have crafted their own modern songbook. These songs and recordings feel timeless; breathing with continuous life but open to change and reinterpretation (even for the band, as seen in this markedly different take on the title track they performed on tour last Fall (below), while still being an undeniable product of the chemistry these four musicians share. They know when to rise up and let it all come out just as keenly as they know when to fall back into the simplest accompaniment, always working in service of the songs, even when that means pulling out completely and letting Lenkerer and her guitar fill the space. 

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