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Big Thief’s Adrianne Lenker Sculpts Nothing Into An Embrace With ‘abysskiss’

On October 1, 2018

Every week, we tell you about an album we think you need to spend time with. This week’s album is Adrianne Lenker's abysskiss. You can buy Vinyl Me, Please's exclusive edition right here.

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Adrianne Lenker makes death seem less daunting. It’s a stressful topic that she handles within her songwriting as effortlessly as taking a breath. Fittingly, she welcomes it on the opening song of her sophomore solo album. “See my death become a trail,” she sings. It’s ostensibly the end. “The trail leads to a flower / I will blossom in your sail.” Just like the album’s title, abysskiss, Lenker weaves threads of paradoxes and contradictions together in order to make a more brilliant whole. She’s aware of the beginning and the end’s connection, so she sings about her death and birth in a singular song with a conflicting title, “terminal paradise.” The song finishes with this radiating hum that feels like the opening of the gate to Lenker’s conceptual labyrinth.

Lenker’s abysskiss follows 2014’s Hours Were the Birds and the couple projects she’s done fronting Brooklyn group Big Thief. Four years later, she’s moved out of New York City, becoming a touring itinerant with no physical home, instead digging her heels into existential queries. Cementing these mystical observations, she’s partnered with friend Luke Temple, breathing life into a roster of songs to see which ones kept their eyes open. They spent a week with Gabe Wax making the record at Panoramic House, a studio in Marin County that overlooks the ocean — a perfect supervisor when making an album named after an untamable nothing.

The album’s title alone illustrates how Lenker takes to antithetical subjects and marries them with tender thoughtfulness. abysskiss: one half is an intimidating void, while the other is an affectionate embrace; one is passive, while the other active; one is unhuman, the other very much so. Combining the two reconciles an emptiness with personal connection. “The kiss is this symbol of like, using our finite forms to sort of have communion with the infinite… blessing it in a way,” she recently explained. Lenker looks out at the end of a cliff into complete darkness with a wondering curiosity that leads her to embrace the massiveness of it all and humanity’s own insignificance.

The wholesomeness and warmth on abysskiss is all encompassing. “Love never leaves, love is the leaves,” she sings on the title track. It’s easy to imagine Lenker’s voice like a whispering gust of wind, blowing notions of interconnected kindness among wavering trees. From “womb” to “cradle,” the album travels back to where most living begins — in a state where one’s life is in the hands of another. Her is voice gentle, just above a whisper, and conveys an unwavering tenderness. Guitar plucks wrap around her like protective, lush vines. Instrumentation helps cement a homey feeling. On “from,” the sound of a cashier ringing someone up and dishes scattering pervade the recording. The bustle of life is present. Lenker and Temple make their guitars feel like inseparable companions, mastering several fingerpicking tones. From meandering to elegant, the plucking on “womb” and “symbol” and “out of your mind” is all varied and escapes a sickness of sounding monotonous. These acoustic guitar plucks and raw piano riffs connect the fibers of Lenker’s visceral storytelling.

From love to nature, abysskiss explores the untamed. She exclaims that her heart “would never bind you with a diamond or a word,” proclaiming that her love is wild and that she will let her relationships thrive as they were ought to without any confinement on “womb.” Later in the record, she announces “The symbol of your love is time,” on “symbol.” Because our existence is limited, the amount of time lent to someone is precious, a crucial indicator of one’s devotion. Lead single “cradle” details a conflict (“baby you’re still too proud to come down / maybe I’m still too loud to hear”) where both sides are at fault, but with time will mend together as if “waves ascend and disappear.” The love that is discussed isn’t a fabricated romance, but weathered and healed over with scar tissue.

Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote, “When you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.” It was a warning that one can become the thing they obsess about; when fighting monsters, we must be wary not to become ones ourselves — to be wary of transference. Lenker doesn’t just gaze into the nihilistic unknown, she embraces it and is inspired by it, shining a light through a prism of emotions, underlining that they’re all connected. Things just happen, good or bad, they’re uncontrollable. These songs are patient when dealing with the uncertainty of time and one’s inevitable mortal end. It’s this patience that allows Lenker to make small moments sacred. Using cyclic themes, from birth and death to warmth and cold, abysskiss decompresses something that can be monstrous or confusing and discovers connectedness. With abysskiss, Adrianne Lenker has sculpted a daunting nothing into a formidable embrace.

Profile Picture of Margaret Farrell
Margaret Farrell

Margaret Farrell is a New York-based writer who has written for Stereogum, Pitchfork, and Flood Magazine. She treats hair color like a mood ring and is, sadly, of no relation to Colin.

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