Big Thief‘s fifth record, Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You, is a lot of things, so perhaps it’s best to start by stating what it’s not.
It’s not a bold new direction or a foray into unknown waters, other than the prospect of bundling two separate vinyl records into a sleeve together. It’s not something that requires several paragraphs worth of context to “get it”. There’s no hook to color its coverage: no illicit backstory behind its creation, no tears or emergencies worth covering, no friction between bandmates looming in its shadow. Though it bears the gravitas of a conceptual art piece, its 20 tracks are linked only by the distinct chemistry of the people who bring them to life.
You also don’t need to know a single thing about Big Thief to fully appreciate this music, though it helps to understand just how far the Brooklyn band have come since their debut in shortening the distance from their music to your marrow. In the time between Masterpiece and now, the foursome have built up a significant legend around their operations, which is extraordinarily hard to do today. Legends are fragile pillars built of hearsay, and hearsay isn’t worth much in an age of video sharing and online platforming.
But Adrienne Lenker is not your average songwriter, and her compatriots are not your average players. Across their career – in the cavernous reverb of their nascency or the bone-scraping rawness of their late 2019 performances – you can easily observe them swirling in their own peculiar power as if each were an amp caught in each other’s feedback. That NPR Tiny Desk Concert of Lenker playing her acoustic with a paintbrush aptly sums it up. In a gorgeous essay written by Mat Davidson, who accompanies the band across this album, the band is spoken of in reverent terms, and the word “magic” is uttered more than once. Maybe so.
Culled from four recording sessions that produced more than double the content of the record, Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You collates everything Big Thief are now known for – pristine arrangements, tight performances, urgent emotionality – into a behemoth of stellar songs. Though it clocks in at about 80 minutes, somehow it all flies by like a breeze.
Having stretched their boundaries on 2019’s celestial U.F.O.F. and craggy Two Hands, Big Thief maintain the thrill of discovery on this record based simply on which direction they choose to pursue. Dusty folk songs like “Change” or “Certainty”, for instance, might yield to the tight-coiled bounce of “Time Escaping” or the crystalline ambiance of the title track. Lucid sentiments give way to crypticness before returning like a boomerang. In some songs, previous incarnations of the group resurface like faded memories; in others the band feels wholly transformed, rejuvenated. Throughout it all, they swerve between styles confidently without betraying their unplaceable essence. Stylistic variety isn’t a novelty anymore, but it’s still thrilling to experience a record where “Red Moon’s” homey charms share a space with the sultry swing of “Heavy Bend” and “Flower of Blood’s” swampy angst.
In lesser hands, such a strategy might lean unfocused or indulgent. One reason why it works so well here, besides the exquisite sequencing, is that a bevy of previous successes has built up an unspoken trust in Big Thief’s artistic decisions. If Lenker’s vocals are buried on a song like “Flower of Blood”, it’s because the force of the playing enlivens the moody sensuality of her lyrics rather than compensates for it. In an arbitrarily hokey track like “Spud Infinity”, Lenker’s lyrical goofiness feels intentional rather than misplaced. Each new horizon the band explores here, whether its “Little Thing’s” red-pushing sonics or “Blurred View’s” trip-hop adjacency, is buttressed by the confidence they display in execution.
Lenker, as always, represents the gravity of Big Thief’s orbit. Her approach to songwriting is so classically folk in how she juxtaposes human matters with naturalistic imagery, but she has the preternatural ability to craft compelling stories along with that imagery rather than in spite of it. Though she’s been conjuring dream logic and psychedelia as a signature since U.F.O.F., those abstractions paradoxically form sharp examinations of love and loss – and, here, in particular, friendship – with the simple power of a koan.
That power reaches multiple peaks here, and so often that you could reasonably reach one wherever you happen to hit pause. There’s the ambiguity of devotion underneath “Certainty”, the existentialist joie de vivre behind “Time Escaping”, the way Lenker repeatedly rhymes “apple” with itself on “Sparrow” without an inkling of cliche. Fitting for a record that contains so many colors and tones, Lenker bends with her words in ways that lift them off the page. She conveys a muted sleepiness on the demo-like “Wake Me Up to Drive”, reaches into a glassy register on the tense “Simulation Swarm”, spills her guts out when “Love Love Love” gets particularly raucous, and lets out a wild yawp by the end of “Little Things” as if unable to contain the force inside her. Repeated listens reveal a host of connecting threads between songs: how “Change” and “Blue Lightning” tackle eternal life, for instance, or how the “swinging still incessant pendulum” on “Time Escaping” is fleshed out near the album’s end.
Speaking of which, “Promise Is a Pendulum”, the only song that finds Lenker alone in the recording booth, makes for perhaps the most obvious zenith. It’s a gorgeous song at a base level, but layers reveal themselves as Lenker’s narrative progresses. The surface beauty of her lyrics, visceral in detail, turn devastating every time the chorus cycles around. Gradually the focus shifts to the personal; sylvan landscapes morph into a facial one at the right time, and a sense of clarity develops that pulls the listener out of the song’s painterly daydream. Lenker maintains a fragile combination of simplicity and depth, of devastation offset by grandeur, until her last few notes fade into the ether and leave a breathtaking contemplativeness in their wake.
While Dragon New Warm Mountain may all be Lenker’s songs, Big Thief’s inner alchemy is what truly shines here. Part of that is how many songs find the band joining in on vocals, a trend that started on previous records but finds revelatory new angles here. Buck Meek’s recent emergence as a solo artist coincides nicely with his heightened presence as a backing singer across the record, a presence that dovetails gorgeously with Lenker’s howling shiver on tracks like “Certainty”, “The Only Place”, and “12000 Lines”. On “Dried Roses”, Mat Davidson takes the high harmony on the title’s recitation, adding pathos to the song’s bitter sense of loss. And on “No Reason”, the whole band join in on Lenker’s chorus and add the same communal dimension that aided “Not’s” negational inferno.
When the members aren’t adding their individual voices in the literal sense, they’re contributing enchanting touches to the record’s plethora of ideas. Meek’s leads and solos are chameleons that run the gamut between hushed restraint (“Change”), winking whimsy (“Blue Lightning,”) and reckless abandon (“Flower of Blood,” “Love Love Love”). James Krivchenka similarly continues to provide pitch-perfect drum parts, like a torrent of rim clicks and ghost notes on “Time Escaping” and a sine wave of intensity through “Simulation Swarm”. Max Oleartchik, as the band’s bassist, can’t flaunt much by design, but he adds his subtle touches as well – notice how his notes trail up the neck on “12000 Lines” like campfire smoke, or how his switch to fretless bass adds a curious slinkiness to “Blurred View”.
More so than any individual contribution, what stuns most is the self-evident wonder of watching the band work as a unit. “Change” doesn’t perhaps sound like four people, but that’s because Meek, Krivchenka, and Oleartchik know how to work additively without disturbing the song’s quietude or perturbing Lenker’s singular presence. Rather than stick to the confines of their band structure, they switch instruments or drop out without ego. The success of the song always forms the end goal, but that “success” is dictated by the notion that each member is operating on the same wavelength, following each other’s direction as if psychically attuned.
Consequently, a record so stuffed with different styles ends up becoming a definitive portrait of their talents. No matter which one they dabble in, at every turn Big Thief sound just like themselves. So in that sense, while Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You is indeed a lot of things, if it’s anything in particular, it’s a flex. It’s a reassertion that the band can essentially do no wrong, and even when they get close, it’s easier to interpret them toeing the borders of brilliance. “It’s a little bit magic,” Lenker utters as the band gently strikes icicles across the crystalline title track. Maybe so.