Big Thief's 'U.F.O.F.' Embraces the Unknown and the Unknowable
Big Thief's third album U.F.O.F. is a sublime odyssey where the journey blithely overshadows the destination. U.F.O.F. is an almost perfect album.
3 May 2019
Big Thief's third album U.F.O.F. is a powerful synthesis of the two main components that both characterized and somewhat fractured their first two excellent albums, Masterpiece (2016) and Capacity (2017). Those two components are, more or less, a plaintive and often somewhat unsettling kind of folk music alongside or up against the counterpoint of a bigger, dirtier, rockier, fuzzy guitar sound. This contrast can be seen as clearly as anywhere on the first two songs of Masterpiece, "Little Arrow" and "Masterpiece", which alternate between those two apparently incongruous registers. It has been a fascinating dynamic, to be sure, but it has also seemed that at some point a decision might have to be made about the direction of the sound. If Big Thief has until now been operating within the pickle of an unresolved thesis and antithesis, U.F.O.F. offers a solution which is neither a compromise nor a resolution, where indeterminacy becomes the theme and the mode of the work itself, and it succeeds brilliantly.
W.B. Yeats famously wrote in "The Second Coming" that "the best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity", seeming to indicate in that jeremiad a complex of paradoxes where the worst of all worlds were obtained simultaneously. He clearly did not anticipate Adrianne Lenker, who manages to combine reticence and passionate intensity in a synthesized bundle of Keatsian negative capability, where it is perfectly possible to live gracefully, even joyously, in uncertainty. This balancing act is achieved with great skill and deftness both musically and lyrically. We are informed that the title, "U.F.O.F.", stands for U.F.O. Friend, so this might be some kind of ET- phone-home-loving-the-alien situation, but on first glance, the acronym might also look a little less inviting if you are squinting and feeling the least bit insecure. And indeed the album does seem to oscillate, cat-like, between come-hither entreaties and fenced-off inscrutability.
The listening experience is otherworldly from the start. We see through a glass darkly here – it feels like there are a persistent vagueness and abstraction in the lyrics and some kind of gauze seems to have been draped over the instrumentation - and it's fantastic. "Contact" opens the album with a fairly characteristic slow burn that almost but never quite explodes, and this appears to be another one of the album's modes of operation. The repeated "and dream" at the peak and close of the song which precipitates the snarling guitar figure (which will return in another form for the penultimate song, "Jenni") all seem indicative of the interesting two-step the album dramatizes, blooming and shrinking by turns like sonic morning glory.
If the opening "Contact" establishes a modus operandi and a statement of intent - note that the title suggests a connection, while the lyrics are a tantalizing abstraction that instantly cancels out the initial overture – what proceeds from there contains Whitmanian multitudes of proliferating and diffuse identities, all almost but not quite within our grasp. There is, for example, the ghost of Elliott Smith that haunts more than one song, including "Contact", the title song, and the low murmur-growl of "Betsy", to name just three, although his spirit seems to pervade much of the album in general.
There is also, perhaps in keeping with Smith's thread of influence, a consistent strand of indie folk music sensibility (albeit married to his rougher Heatmiser sound in places – this being the synthesis toward which the album seems to be moving). That is most apparent in "Orange" and "Cattails", along with two songs that first appeared on Lenker's 2018 solo project abysskiss, "Terminal Paradise" and "From". Interestingly, all of the songs on that solo album were denoted in lowercase lettering, while their elevation to the Big Thief canon has their titles capitalized, as if to recognize their evolution into band songs rather than solo offerings, so that "terminal paradise" and "from" become "Terminal Paradise and From". And there is the almost-synesthesia of colors that seems to be a recurring trope, whether it's in the obvious "Orange" ("orange is the color of my love") or the more subtle "auburn" of "Betsy".
So how might we reconcile and synthesize all of these disparate elements, these tendrils and filaments straining toward the light, into a unified field theory of Big Thief at this point in their career? Well, for all that this album moves and shakes in abstractions and operates by indeterminacy, there seems to be a consistently recurring but equally consistently noncommittal poetics of gender, sexuality, and desire at work here somehow. Many of the songs' subjects (and perhaps also, therefore, its love objects) are female, but the pronouns here also seem to be relentlessly restless, pausing only long enough to be named before either they move on, or we move on from them.
From the Jodi of "Contact", who is "both dreamer and dream", the female "ufo friend", who is "taking up root in the sky", to the Caroline of "Cattails", the opening three songs present us with a succession of female characters who are being apostrophized and serenaded, even as they prove to be ultimately elusive. It's only when we get to "From", where "no one can / Be my man be my man", at the same time as "no one can / Be my woman be my woman / Be my woman", that we get a hint of the firm commitment to non-resolution that seems to be at the core of this undertaking. Most of the subsequent songs' protagonists continue to carry female pronouns, from the "vacant angel" of "Open Desert" through to the smoldering of "Jenni" in the album's closing stages.
What seems to be a studied vagueness and abstraction (to name a song "From", for example, seems utterly typical of our sense of limbo in this experience) pervades the lyrical flickers of, to take a brief sampling, "you don't need to know why" ("Cattails"), "couldn't tell for sure / Where the screaming sound / Was coming from" (the aforementioned "From"), and "no resolution / No circling dove / Still caught / In the jaw of confusion" ("Century"). Indeed, there is a pervasive imagistic abstraction in this album's gnomic lyrical content, which is both suggestive and elusive at the same time. All of this adds up to an album that is essentially unknowable in a way that also makes you want to spend more and more time with it, either to try to figure it out somehow or perhaps more fruitfully to get lost in its unknowability.
There is also a kind of hermetically sealed inscrutability here, such that it's hard to know if the album is trying to tell us something or trying not to. But whatever it conveys is ultimately a gorgeous impressionism reaching in many directions at once. It feels almost as if this album represents a prism of desire that refracts and reflects whatever we bring to it, as well as it offers and withdraws its own confidences. In this respect, U.F.O.F. feels polymorphous and ambivalent without being in the least embarrassed. That is not necessarily coyness; it is giving up exactly as much as it feels like it wants to about itself. As the closer "Magic Dealer" says, "I am the photograph in you." That seems to be as good a clue as any that the album is disclosing as much as it wants to reveal while allowing us to see ourselves in that partial revelation wherever we might find points of useful identification. But it is also mischievously embedding itself in our consciousness in a way that is mightily difficult to shake off.
If there is the slightest scintilla of criticism it might be that the album never fully lets loose and finally goes to the wild places you know it's dreaming about, although this in itself is a classic trope of desire – so many of us keep so much in, disguising all kinds of unseen inner ferments, turmoils, ecstasies, and tribulations. There is a constant simmer here that rarely if ever comes to a full boil, which is both tantalizing and remarkably disciplined, although you also sometimes wish for just one song that would burn the whole thing down. One suspects that some of these songs ("Jenni" and "Contact", for example) might do that in a live context. "Jenni", prefigured by the opening "Contact", makes a dirty noise that renders explicit the desire that might have been less directly or feverishly articulated elsewhere.
U.F.O.F., then, is an almost perfect album, "with the windows wide", as "Cattails" has it, blowing a cleansing breeze of fresh spring air through our musty winter halls, all while leaving us as blank as if we were newborn ciphers and scratching our heads as if we were grizzled and bewildered elders, none the wiser for all of our tempestuous experience. Wide open and utterly oblique at the same time, these are, to paraphrase the immortal Tim Buckley, songs to the sirens. The best music is often the kind that refuses any label. This is that music.
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