Adrianne Lenker is the best kind of omniscient narrator. She doesn’t step into her stories as much as she does inhabit them, perceiving herself as a quiet observer who understands that love can swing between attraction and resentment. The characters she writes about have specific names: Lorraine, Paul, Marie, Randy, and so forth. That notion of specificity allows us to better visualize these very familiar stories we’ve surely stumbled upon in the past, whether if it’s through patient consolation or when we’re the victims ourselves.
This peculiar narrative is what gives Masterpiece, Big Thief’s debut full-length, its beauty and meaning. Never does Lenker complicate things to make herself sound either too clever or well-read, and it’s through a very straightforward choice of words that she manages to engage. She also expects you to pay the right amount of attention as opposed to just giving it all away through an undemanding chorus, though the same could be said about Big Thief’s turbulent musical choices. Album opener “Little Arrow” makes a questionable first impression with a lulling, two-minute acoustic strum. And just when you think that you’re stepping into weary lo-fi territory, the band immediately follows it with the wandering ballad “Masterpiece”. “You saw the masterpiece / She looks a lot like you,” Lenker sings as if assuming the body of country soul singer, with a mellifluous and reflective tone that is equal parts haunting and amiable.
The Brooklyn-based quartet’s steady songwriting usually plays to the service of Lenker’s slow-burning portraits, though there are moments in Masterpiece where they’ll launch head-first into a satisfying sonic clatter. The bittersweet “Vegas” reads like an intimate fragment you’d read in a Carver short story, adding some surrealist touches (“Your tears were salty ocean”) to a story about a conflicted pair whose tensions are now documented somewhere in the open road. The song provides a jaunty tempo to counter its otherwise wistful gleam; it’s an appropriate set-up for “Real Love”, an expansive rocker that inches itself quietly from one emotive chord to another until it erupts with a histrionic guitar attack that almost defies Lenker’s rational negativity: “Real love makes your lungs black / Real love is a heart attack.”
Other times, Big Thief’s story-songs share something of a resemblance to ’90s grunge pop bands like the Julianna Hatfield Three or Liz Phair. The slightly-smeared scuzz of “Interstate” shares some of that era’s use of discordance overlaid with soothing harmonies, while “Humans” employs some brittle chords before it completely unhinges itself with a textured collage of dismembered riffs courtesy of guitarist Buck Meek. But these volatile expressions are more of an afterthought to an album that courses through with more introspective acoustic musings: the dexterous arpeggio of “Velvet Ring”, as gorgeous as it is, simply exists to further embellish Lanker’s sweetly dulcet tone despite hosting some of the album’s darkest sentiments (“Shoved in the kitchen of a city womb / The light would flicker like a violent womb”).
What makes Masterpiece such an engrossing listen is how they regulate the songs to their bare essentials even when they’re at their most dynamic. Big Thief is a band that understands that there’s much to explore within life’s empty spaces, to never underestimate what’s not readily there and occupy it with grand, though modest, gestures. Lanker doesn’t really concern herself with personal accounts, and perhaps as they continue to grow she’ll integrate that into her songs, but for now she comes across as an astute writer who finds much value in humanist thought. The drifting compositions in Masterpiece are in constant movement, as if there’s this need to go, even if they’re not too concerned about where it leads to.