Big Thief: U.F.O.F. - Album Review

Big Thief’s latest is their finest work to date, balancing imagery and instrumentation in complex fashion, without losing their core sound.

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Time has been waiting for Big Thief to make this record. With the experience of Masterpiece and Capacity under their belts, vocalist/guitarist Adrianne Lenker, guitarist Buck Meek, bassist Max Oleartchik and drummer James Krivchenia have perfected their folk-rock influences into the perfect complement dish for Lenker’s songs. The music of U.F.O.F. is quiet, calming like a walk in morning sunlight, and excruciatingly personal. Lenker remains the main draw, spinning her rich emotional ballads with never-better precision, now backed by the most dynamic music Big Thief have yet to record.

If you’re not into indie-folk, still listen to U.F.O.F.. It’s acoustic, yes, but songs like “Strange” and “Contact” shake up more than just the formula; there is vulnerability to spare, scattered all about the album’s 11 tracks. “Terminal Paradise,” which appeared on Lenker’s 2018 solo album abysskiss in a different form, is the emotional centerpiece, her cries backed by a light choir and spindling guitars as she relays her death to an unknown partner. Big Thief have long approached themes of death, but never as obtusely, with lyrics like “Worm/Will you return me/To the robin's beak?”

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“Contact” is the first sign of change. Dreary chords give way to effervescent vocals, culminating in a screeching guitar solo that calls like a warning to a greater storm. Subsequent tunes, including the stunning title track, play with a cloud looming, waiting as if to strike as soon as Lenker yields her life-giving breath. This gives the music of U.F.O.F. a new meaning, rising beyond arrangement and into a before/after narrative. By the time the storm arrives on “Jenni,” the band has painted a disparate portrait of life in the midst of doubt, looking for answers in a universe that drops time like pine needles.

U.F.O.F. shifts a portion of Big Thief’s weight to the music, giving space for guitars and drums to cast canvases big enough for Lenker’s naturalistic poetry. “Jenni” is a sludge of guitar and stacked vocals big enough to topple whatever feelings one might have, and all before the ear-shredding one-note solo; with more complex arrangements, Big Thief have proven that there is more gold to be mined in their sparse sound, and that it doesn’t all rest on Lenker.

Emotional depth has long been the calling card of Big Thief’s work; everything was second to it. Their melodies, though never poor, were often lacking the draw Lenker’s storytelling supplied in bulk. Though their progression has been incremental, U.F.O.F. presents an uptick in quality of songwriting that’s largely influenced by Lenker’s exploration of herself. The balance of intimacy on abysskiss allows U.F.O.F. to function as a sort of reunion; the opportunity for Lenker to present her songs to a Dylan-esque band, tight and tuned-in to her frequency. Both “From” and “Terminal Paradise” are direct examples, but it’s songs like “Betsy” that make a lasting impression. With descending melodies and breezy hooks, it carries the emotional and instrumental palette of early Red House Painters; to subtler valleys, places to go after a breakup or a walk in the woods. This in part is the magic of Big Thief: their ability to speak directly to one emotion in lyrics, and another in music.

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U.F.O.F. is awash in potential pitfalls: the quiet instrumentation, soft singing, the stereotypically dreamy album cover. If this is your first time listening to Big Thief, don’t pay attention to any of that. Enjoy the music, songs like “Century” that recall the subdued power of Wilco; the feeling that the guitar could crush the song at any moment, but keeps things quiet so as not to wake the baby. For those who have long enjoyed Masterpiece and Capacity but are waiting for something more, U.F.O.F. is that something. Big Thief have long carried an air of forced-quiet, the kind of feeling that’s easy to judge and hard to understand; U.F.O.F. is the first time they’ve made it essential.