Big Thief’s debut album starts with “Little Arrow”, a simple vocal and guitar song by frontwoman/songwriter Adrianne Lenker. Lenker’s soulful voice is by far the most compelling thing about “Little Arrow.” The guitar is barely there, just sketching in gently strummed chords, and the recording itself is one of those tinny-sounding, shitty demos that often get passed off as “raw” or “nakedly real” by low-fi enthusiasts. The track portends an album full of good vocals undermined by mediocre songwriting and bad production.
Fortunately for everyone involved with Masterpiece, it turns out that the band is just changing things up from the norm. Generally when an artist has a quiet demo that they want to put on a full album, it ends up as a low-key closing track. Big Thief did the opposite, which becomes clear as soon as the second song, “Masterpiece”, begins. This mid-tempo track is crisply produced, featuring a full band of two guitars, bass, and drums. Lenker’s voice remains the focus throughout, while the song is anchored by a catchy chorus. It also features a noisy guitar solo from Lenker, which fits well with the slightly jangly, slightly distorted guitar tone that permeates the track. Third song “Vegas” starts more quietly but quickly opens up into a more jangly, full-bodied arrangement. The best parts are the quieter passages, where drummer James Krivchenia sticks to his toms and Lenker echoes her vocal melody on the guitar.
Masterpiece has the odd quality of being an album that improves as it goes. A lot of this is due to the shaky start with “Little Arrow”, but the song construction and melodies also generally get more interesting as the album progresses. “Real Love”, the fourth track, attempts to pack all of this progression into a single song and it doesn’t quite work. The song starts off extremely spare and quiet and pushes into a chorus backed by noisy guitars and drums almost immediately. Later it builds up over an interesting bridge, briefly stops off at the chorus, and then launches into a noisy guitar solo before returning to the quiet beginning. Lenker isn’t quite done there. She launches into a coda that’s a full on Jack White-style guitar freakout, and the band eventually joins her. While this is certainly daring, the melody isn’t strong enough to really support it, so the noisiness leaves the biggest impression and subsumes the rest of the song in its wake.
It’s when Big Thief reaches the second half of the album that the songwriting begins to match their ideas. “Paul” is a slow love ballad about a relationship that is broken at the start of the song. “Oh the last time I saw Paul / I was horrible and almost let him in / but I stopped and caught the wall / and my mouth got dry so all I did was take him for a spin.” The song goes on to blame both Paul and Lenker’s narrator for perpetuating a terribly unhealthy relationship. It’s a fascinating narrative, and the band stays quiet and slow, keeping the focus on Lenker’s singing and the lyrics.
Then the band hits “Humans” and “Animals”, the most successful rockers on the record. “Humans” has a hooky guitar riff and drumbeat in the verses, leading into a catchy, driving chorus. This track also features a bombastic guitar solo, but in this case it fits in nicely with the driving beat. “Animals”, on the other hand, has loping verses driven by a simple bassline by Max Oleartchik and a complementary hi-hat rhythm from Krivchenia. The refrain finds the band doing a big tempo shift, speeding up for a full power-pop chorus before dropping back down to the lope. This is a different sound for the band and it’s very effective.
In between “Humans” and “Animals” is “Velvet Ring”, a solo Lenker song driven by strong acoustic guitar playing and highly melodic singing. Following “Animals” is “Randy”, another (mostly) solo ballad this time played on soft electric guitar. This lovely track feels personal and intimate. Both of these songs are so much more successful than the low-fi “Little Arrow” that one wonders why either one doesn’t open the album instead.
Big Thief has an assured debut record on their hands. It’s dominated by Lenker’s singing and guitar playing, but she has enough personality to carry the whole band. There are a couple of missteps here and there, but the good stuff is really accomplished. Masterpiece is full of solid, low-key indie rock with rootsy leanings and should have no trouble quickly finding an audience for Big Thief.