Big Thief's sophomore release takes on a more reserved sound without sacrificing emotional, quality songwriting.
The quickness with which indie/Americana band Big Thief turned around their sophomore album Capacity seems to nod at the meaning behind the album’s title. In a Newsweek interview, bandleader and songwriter Adrianne Lenker attributes the title to a friend who writes dozens and dozens of stories. Lenker said she asked her friend “How do you possibly remember all this stuff? How do you have the capacity to hold all this in your brain?” What stories are to her friend, songs seem to be for Lenker herself. Capacity is a collection of 11 new songs that simplify the sound of their 2016 debut Masterpiece but allow Lenker somehow even more freedom for her intense and emotional songwriting.
While Masterpiece was strung together with sharp, winding melodies that were doubled by Lenker’s vocals and twangy guitars and a sound that was somehow larger than itself. It was written from a somewhat distant perspective though, as if by someone too young to fully understand what they’re looking at. But if Masterpiece is the child trying desperately to grow up in a ruined world, then Capacity is that future adult with all of the pain of experience that implies.
The album takes on a less complicated sound. Gone are the frantic, jumping melody lines that dotted the band’s debut. Lenker’s sensibility for interesting tunes isn’t absent; it’s simply that the focus is shifted away from that aspect. There is less going on in general, though. The drums are fairly minimal, the guitars are more often clean than they are distorted, acoustic sounds are featured heavily, and the aggressive energy of earlier songs like “Animals” and “Real Love” is tempered to something like a dull roar.
For some, this ‘settling down’ of the band’s sound might come across initially as a disappointment especially when many of the group’s contemporaries like Mitski or Hop Along are only getting more brash and bold with their sounds, but in the case of Capacity less is certainly more. The personal element comes through somehow stronger when there is less in the way. Of course, Lenker is a delight to listen to when she approaches a wail, and her voice begins to crackle with electricity, but the lightness with which she tackles the nearly monotone chorus on “Mary” or the almost unrecognizable quality her voice has throughout “Coma” are equally brilliant to hear and seem to match the calm introspection that naturally envelops the album.
Just because there is less sound or that the feeling is smaller and more intimate certainly doesn’t mean that Capacity is lacking in the musical prowess that was the backbone of Masterpiece. “Great White Shark” nods to the excellent interplay of voice and guitar that the band is so good at while surprising the listener with each transition between chorus and verse. And “Objects” and “Haley” contain tremendous and simple guitar work that still manages to highlight to the tightness of Max Oleartchik’s and James Krivchenia’s rhythm section. Again, it seems throughout the album that when there is less distortion, less intensity, less sound, everything else shines. There is a precision to the sound of Capacity that suits the band well and seems effortless even in the moments when Lenker’s words speak of hard times.
In the end, Capacity has a lot of very personal stories contained within it, many of them about Lenker, some of them revisiting topics from Masterpiece but from a different perspective. The band’s debut found Lenker meditating on her parents’ relationship and on all of the other things that form a young person’s perception of love both true and untrue. Capacity also deals in love and the past, but it is more inward. Stories about her parents become stories about how that affected her. Stories about relationships become more focused on herself and how those things speak to gender roles, loneliness, sacrifice, and yes, even love. But the ideas are nuanced, complex and the conclusions only come after great exhaustion. There are a lot of songs and stories in Adrianne Lenker’s brain and Capicity can’t hold them all, but the 11 that it does are an excellent evolution in the band’s musical and storytelling progression.