Big Thief has made more than a few of us shed a tear. The musical world has agreed that these indie rock sweethearts are something special, but what is it about Big Thief that makes us cry? Two things.
1. Honesty is the priority
“I’m committed to an honest expression, not necessarily a performance”
Big Thief frontwoman Adrianne Lenker explains that a pursuit of honesty guides her creativity in an interview with NPR. Being a rock star is the hallmark of bravado and glamour, but Lenker plays to a different tune. She seeks to tell us her truth, and her art takes on a special quality.
But praising a singer’s honesty is a murky topic. How is something like that conveyed? At first I’d thought of Lenker’s quiet, crooning voice, which sounds like she’s sharing a secret. But a whispering voice can still tell a lie, or say nothing at all, à la ‘whisperpop’. The magic with Adrianne Lenker is that her voice invites us to listen closely, and then she sings something like the track Masterpiece.
Lenker’s lyrics are what drives her music home. The words balance tight and loose descriptions. We are grounded in one line and allowed to wander in another. Consider Masterpiece’s lyrics;
“Laying there on the hospital bed
Your eyes were narrow, blue, and red
You took a draw of breath and said to me
You saw the masterpiece, she looks a lot like me”
A scene of someone dear in a hospital bed precedes the song’s refrain, ‘You saw the masterpiece’. The phrase describes at once God, the afterlife, our loved ones, and death itself. We are invited into a memory which reflects our own most painful experiences, and then we’re hit with a metaphor that carries the entire emotional package. Even the colors convey both love and death. ‘Blue and red’ are normally our violets and roses of love, but here they’re the strained eyes of a dying person. That’s where I cry.
2. Real life is art
Metaphor by itself is cheap, a great song can’t stop there. How does a song reach straight to your core and grab you? Big Thief’s answer is that Lenker has taken a good look at you, or at least she would if she saw you.
“The deepest influences I’ve had have just been people in my life […] I’ve always been an observer.”
Adrianne Lenker’s “mind puts frames on everything.” She sees art in the way red bricks intersperse with white ones on a wall, how light hits a tree, or in an overheard conversation between an older woman and a young boy. This way of living reveals an empathy for the world and its people.
Different artist’s songs can reach widely but not very deep, like a large puddle. But when Big Thief talks about something like loss, the universality of the subject is matched by the song’s razor sharp lyricism. What we hear are the musings of an artist who has really considered what it means to feel these feelings.
Big Thief’s metaphors are not only thoughtful, they’re fresh. In the track Real Love, love isn’t a falling or a fever as we’ve heard in a million other songs. Instead, Lenker sings that ‘Real love makes your lungs black, real love is a heart attack’. The song is as chilling as it is tender.
Here I’ve considered Big Thief’s words after they’ve stabbed me in the heart, but the important thing to take away is that these songs are out there. Go listen to them! But before that, comment below your own favorite lyric. What about it touches you?