Every week we tell you about an album we think you need to spend time with. This week’s album is U.F.O.F., the new album from Big Thief.
On my fifth listen to Big Thief’s third album U.F.O.F. this weekend, I sat down at my favorite coffee shop, ready to write a record review, as I routinely do. After staring at a blank google doc for the duration of the album, I packed up my things — ignoring my strained finances and the immediate task at hand — walked four blocks to the nearest bike shop and bought a stunning vintage fuschia and white road bike.
I rode it around the lake during my sixth play of U.F.O.F., the corners of my lips turning up at each end for no one but myself as “Cattails” began to play and my eyes softening and widening in a way they haven’t in recent memory. “Still, the question sings like Saturn’s rings, maybe she knows and she won’t tell, but you don’t need to know why when you cry,” the bounciest version of Adrianne Lenker’s whispering alto reassures us on the jaunty, atmospheric folk tune. She compares the weight of a question to the sound of Saturn’s rings (electromagnetic vibrations caught in a recording by NASA as a low, droning song) before insisting it doesn’t need an answer. Though Big Thief has always had an established penchant for cozying up to the earthly unknown — of sex, love, death, time, family, all the opaque parts of being — U.F.O.F. (the second “F” stands for “friend”) frequently turns that intimacy into otherworldly wonder.
As children, for some of us, our bikes are the first means by which we flirt with a world outside our own. For me, this continued beyond when I got my driver’s license. Sure, a car gets you from point A to point B, but a bike moves your body through the open air in between, somewhere at the midpoint between a meditation, a catharsis, and a simple practicality. The world that exists inside of U.F.O.F. is one that made me yearn insatiably, almost irrationally, to ride a bike: matter-of-fact and understated, but filled to the brim with the kind of alien wonder that requires you to shed the rigidity that accumulates over time to appreciate. The songs graze through messages as quotidien as the convenience store you pass every day on your commute to work, but, as if you were viewing it from the seat of a bike, something about it feels removed, foreign. Love is simply the color orange and death is simply a trail and jumping into clear water is simply a kiss, and all of it is your friend.
The album’s instrumentation shares this mix of subtlety and abstract play. It’s minimal and more similarly paced to their debut Masterpiece or Lenker’s most recent solo album abysskiss (which adds up, considering U.F.O.F. was recorded in the same cabin outside Seatlle as their debut and features new arrangements of two songs off abysskiss, “Terminal Paradise” and “From”). But even while they skipped the broad, anthem-like tendencies (for Big Thief, at least) that made Capacity so popular in favor something softer, their drawing back is the opposite of a step backward. The experimentation they courted on Capacity exists, plentifully, but doesn’t jar. Somehow, distant, blood-curdling screams (“Contact”) might as well be Lenker’s softest mutter and unidentifiable, scrambled, sped-up voice recordings (“UFOF”) become their own unquestionable rhythm section, and not a second of it makes you think twice. It’s strangeness is a friend you’ve known forever.
After my bike went missing a year ago, I didn’t have a bike for the first time since early childhood. And I didn’t really long for one until I heard U.F.O.F. I’d hardened a bit, as we all tend to do from time to time, and forgotten what it was like to experience the world around me — the foreign, the familiar, the scary, the unknown, the everyday — in a way that feels so regular and so marvelous all at once.
Three quarters into “Strange,” the steady, plodding backbone of a guitar meets a new distant, wandering melody and eventually breaks into a flurry of quiet, sparkling synths and a cathedral-sized dissonant vocal chorus. “You have wings of gold, you will never grow old,” Lenker sings over it all, “And turquoise lungs, you have never been young.”