Every week, we tell you about an album we think you need to spend time with. This week’s album is Two Hands, the second LP of 2019 by indie rockers Big Thief.
Three months ago, Big Thief released their third studio album U.F.O.F. Thematically, the album focused closely on the unknown, and the otherworldly (the second “F” stands for friend). The band experimented in more ways than ever before — guitars rigged in circles of amps to emulate screaming, reversed vocal loops, and plenty of echo sets the tone for a spacey Big Thief record. The album was recorded at a studio located in the lush greenery of the woods in Washington, while the sister album Two Hands was recorded in the middle of the desert in Texas. If the duration of U.F.O.F. was spent floating in space, Two Hands brings it all back down to earth.
Two Hands is Big Thief in their most stripped-down form. There’s very little in the way of experimentation — instead, the band focuses heavily on the raw structure of the songs they write and essentialize every note, every chord. Andrew Sarlo returns once again to handle the production of the record, and keeps the mix remarkably barren this time around. All of the songs were recorded live, including all of frontwoman Adrianne Lenker’s vocals. The songs are expertly written — they sometimes tackle painful, intimate, or massive concepts with satisfying thematic closure, and include some of Lenker’s most heartfelt, and most powerful, performances to date: “I can imagine myself singing them when I’m old,” she said in a press release from Big Thief’s label, 4AD.
Two Hands is both big and small, clean, and built-from-the-ground-up rock that doesn’t sacrifice any of the intrigue gained from the sonic experimentation on U.F.O.F. There are songs like “Rock and Sing” that feel as intimate and personal as a lullaby from a loved one, and then there are songs like “Not” that sound like an instantaneous moment in which the Earth splits in two and molten lava spews from its cracks like a geyser out of Hell, on loop.
I had just gotten home from a 12-hour shift at work when I flopped onto my bed and began a listen of Two Hands. Up until this moment, I had every intent of cleaning my room, getting ahead on some homework and maybe even starting to write this review. The problem, however, was that Big Thief has an incredible ability to slow down the world around you, and make it feel as if it ceases to exist. Just as often as Two Hands asks you to listen with every fiber of your being, it rewards you for doing so. Needless to say, by the time I had reached the 30-second point of the album’s opener — “Rock and Sing” — I realized that I was in my bed to stay.
There isn’t a moment on Two Hands that doesn’t feel incredibly intimate, like a conversation between Lenker and the listener: “In the room, her warm hands play / on my breast, what is she singing?” she sings on “The Toy.” For every intricate, interpersonal detail she shares, she has another wider insight to share with the listener. On the very same song she sings: “Charcoal, the jet plane’s purr / the crew, distant as paper / children burn, faceless as paper.” Despite the complexity surrounding the narratives to which lyrics like these allude, Lenker's ultimate strength lies in her ability to distill them into raw emotional impact. Or maybe she just wants us all to cry in solidarity, as she sings on “Forgotten Eyes”: “It is no less a tear, and becomes the cheek / with which we smile.”
Jonah is a production student at UW-Madison. Most nights he dreams that he is Spider-man and hopes that maybe one day he will be.