WRITTEN BY: Erika Cutaia
On February 11th, Big Thief returned with Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You, their fifth and longest album to date. Brilliantly produced by the band’s drummer, James Krivchenia, DNWMIBIY offers 20 tracks, selected from a whopping 45 the band had recorded, that span a total of 81 mystic minutes. This lengthy task of a double album was overwhelmingly seeped in high expectations, not only from the sheer length, but from pressures to provide a successful addition to Big Thief’s sound: folksy and serious with the nuance to broach topics of human experience.
Despite that weight, Big Thief embarked on the journey with a sense of lightness and wonder of what was to come. Adrianne Lenker, Max Oleartchik, Buck Meek, and James Krivchenia hopped in the car and sped away to four different destinations to record the album (Upstate New York, Topanga Canyon, The Rocky Mountains, and Tucson, Arizona). They visited friends along the way, and left behind all pressure and expectations in a thick cloud of dust.
It is no surprise that vocalist and guitarist Adrianne Lenker, holding breathtakingly close feelings for anything that eats and is eaten, would delve into themes of love and earth in her unwaveringly powerful and poetic lyrical tendencies. But what sets DNWMIBIY apart from previous Big Thief records is her transition into caring a great deal less about what people think, tackling themes of childlike intimacy with full force. Recalling her quote from an online comment thread last year, Lenker relays, “I think the biggest factor for me is curiosity. From what I observed, as long as you’re curious you’re like a child—wonderment might be the most important thing to me in the realm of intimacy”—a sentiment that she brings to the album.
The outcome? Lenker becomes even more unfettered, approaching creation with young-hearted awe and honesty. Swooping the entire crew into her retrograde, she allows for the other members to hone in on their own inner child during the recording process and bond together on a deeper level than ever before. Perhaps this is best demonstrated through the playful approach and youth-minded resourcefulness of the musicians on their trip to the Catskills, where recording began in Sam Evian’s studio. The group acted as if they were on a playdate, taking frigid dips together in a nearby stream—soaking the studio floor during the recording of classic love song “12,000 Lines” post plunge—and finding wonder in the use of ordinary objects as instruments, playing with the enchanting crackles of icicles on the title track “Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You.”
On the opening track of the album, “Change,” Lenker directly alludes to this spirit. Speaking about the song, she says, “In ‘Change,’ I felt it was just straight-up my 7-year-old self writing it: ‘Change like the sky/Like the leaves/like a butterfly’… It’s the dance between my child self and my older, mother self, always in conversation. I’m just becoming more confident in myself and less worried about where my career will go, or how people will receive something. I’m learning how to be less critical of what I’m making as I’m making it.”
Children tend to make messes with explorations of who’s and why’s. DNWMIBIY is one big collage of such a mess, like when you give a child the task of coloring, and in turn, you get the gift of a crayon-scribbled paper, with swirls of blues and reds and oranges and twists and twirls, ups and downs, all over the place—jumbles spilling out of the designated lines of the paper. For DNWMIBIY, the swirls and colors are each song. At times they are the angelic, soft, and mystical strokes of “The Only Place” and “No Reason.” Other times they are the energetic dots of downright cacophony and clamorous percussion on “Time Escaping.” The most notable and jarring colors are the explorations of new, dark electronic sounds and hypnotic grooves on tracks like “Heavy Bend,” “Flower of Blood,” and “Blurred View” (which channels a ravenous hungry love). These songs wildly juxtapose the straight lines of more classic sounding Big Thief tracks like “Sparrow” and “Dried Roses.” There are marks made with great gusto—the gleeful hoedowns “Red Moon” and “Spud Infinity”—with a boinging jaw harp that makes you grab someone, dance without care, and accept looking foolish. A blue line is wistfully woven with “The Only Place” and “Promise is a Pendulum,” fluttering until swelling up to the excruciating thickness of “Love Love Love.” When you hold up the album to look at the jumbled scribbles, you realize it is exactly beautiful, because after all, if Big Thief stayed in the lines and never strayed, their art would lack depth and heart-filled exploration—a cookie-cutter copy of past works.
So, much like the gift of a coloring page filled with energetic strays, DNWMIBIY stands as Big Thief’s heartfelt, rule-breaking, curiously-formed magnum opus that should be proudly displayed.