Adrianne Lenker 2024
Photo: Germaine Dunes / Pitch Perfect PR

Adrianne Lenker’s ‘Bright Future’ Is a Big Record

On Bright Future, Big Thief’s Adrianne Lenker proves how much you can do with so little that you don’t need a ton of flash to craft a stunning record.

Bright Future
Adrianne Lenker
22 March 2024

What makes a big record? Does it need to be projected on the side of the Guggenheim or have stories-high billboards along Sunset Boulevard to make headlines? Does it need to be stuffed like mushrooms with guest stars, songwriting credits, and guest producers? Does each song need a radio edit or a rave remix?

Twenty-five years since Metallica started waging the loudness wars on terrestrial airwaves, there’s a risk of music losing all subtlety and nuance. So much mainstream pop-oriented music is compressed like a Cubic Zarkonia, glazed like a faux-boutique end table, and loudened to a level air raid sirens would be jealous of. It’s like having someone yell in your face 24-7; it’s more drill sergeant than Saturday night.

On Bright Future, Big Thief‘s Adrianne Lenker proves you don’t need any of that to make a good record – a great one, even. It might even prove to be timeless, given its proximity and kinship to some of the all-time great singer/songwriters. Rather than relying on flashy gimmicks and studio trickery, Lenker lets good old-fashioned song craftsmanship carry the album through its 12 tunes. She uses musicality, employing numerous jazz and blues chords to underscore her stories of grief, loss, beginnings, endings, and the minutiae of modern life. Her lyrics and vocals do even more heavy lifting – Bright Future‘s most overt Dylan-esque reference – breaking lines mid-thought to create elegant rhyme structures that hurtle, comet, and stream across Lenker’s inner landscape.

The album begins at its most spartan and austere. Built around nothing but some spacious, ruminative piano chords and Lenker’s hair-rising vocals, it coalesces into a stream-of-consciousness memoir about seeing her mother cry for the first time when they had to put their dog down. It’s absolutely stunning and quietly devastating. She conveys so much with those two elements – a simple story about the people we love, the disorientation of realizing your parents are only human, the grief over losing a beloved pet, and a family coming together during trying times. There are enough details for a Victorian social novel told in a quiet, breathy alto and parlor room piano. It will destroy you if you let it.

Do not make the mistake of pigeonholing Bright Future as just another miserablist folk album recorded in ethnographic austerity, though. The record immediately picks up its pace, even while maintaining some of its contemplative gloom, with “Sadness As a Gift”, an ornate country reel of baroque fiddles and bright strumming acoustic guitars. It’s a lovely, jaunty bounce made genuinely stunning with its seventh chords and close harmonies. It’s not bright, with its musings over impermanence and the inevitability of time, but it’s not dark either. It’s nuanced.

Do not take restraint to indicate incapability, either. Bright Future isn’t just another faux-old-timey document, although much of it sounds as if it could’ve beamed out of the Grand Ole Opry any time in the last 100 years. The album occasionally twists and twines into the vicinity of progressive rock on “Fool”, with its percolating math rock guitar lines and glistening digital artifacts. The closer “Ruined” is a lullaby, Adrianne Lenker’s wolf-like howl, and Carole King piano balladry against a glowing Sonar sunrise synth. Not only do such diversions suggest Lenker could equally excel in any form of modern indie music, it also makes for an exciting and varied listening experience, the kind that make you want to explore an albums nooks and crannies, twists and turns, brambles, thorns, and wildflowers.

Most of Bright Future remains solely in classic folk singer-songwriter territory, though. “No Machine” is a humanist ode about life in a technocracy, full of lovely naturalist imagery over a silvery guitar loop. “Free Treasure” is a sweet, touching ballad about the awkwardness and acceptance that can be found in romantic relationships that’s even more stuffed with beautiful scenes from nature, like some sort of turn-of-the-century canvas from Alphonse Mucha. Perhaps the clearest example is “Evol”, though, with its anagram lyrics over a stunningly simple chamber piano melody and a delicate, see-sawing violin line.

Adrianne Lenker led a songwriting class last year and advised her students to approach songwriting as a craft instead of waiting for inspiration to strike. “Evol” feels like the result of one of these exercises; the mirrored wordplay is equal parts insightful, poignant, and whimsical nonsense. When something sounds this lovely, it doesn’t entirely matter, anyway.

Instead of a polished record trying to sound professional, most of Bright Future sounds like a documentarian rushing to capture the lightning happening around them in a bottle. Like Adrianne Lenker’s last solo album, Bright Future was recorded straight to tape; you can hear the motor whirring to life as it gets up to speed on numerous occasions throughout the record. Instead of aiming for some sort of pristine, immaculately manufactured product, Bright Future strives to capture this particular moment, this particular version of this song. Instead of merely trying to express her current moment in time, Lenker has delivered something timeless, something that would sound as at home at the Cafe Wha? as the Virginia Piedmont. It’s a big record from a huge talent for those with the ears to hear.

RATING 7 / 10