The album “abysskiss” opens with a quiet, ascending guitar line, accompanied by nothing but a single piano chord that goes by unnoticed if you’re not listening closely. You can almost feel the vibrations of the strings as they move through the audible static of the room in which they were recorded. You can also feel the guitar filling this space, so much so that it is somewhat of a surprise when Adrianne Lenker’s airy vocals come in 15 seconds into the track. She lets out what sounds like an emotive, melodic sigh; it takes a moment to realize that she is singing words. “Warm/So warm/Screaming in the field/As I was born.”
This fleeting, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it quality is present throughout “abysskiss.” It’s easy to let Lenker’s hypnotic voice and guitar work wash over you without paying much attention to her words or their meaning (I can say from experience that the record is a great one to fall asleep to). But look closer, and you’ll discover unique, intriguing and at times sinister details, particularly in her songwriting. Take the opener, “terminal paradise.” Seconds after describing her birth, she portrays the end of her life: “Terminal/We both know/Let the rest of me go/See my death become a trail/And the trail leads to a flower.” This stark and perplexing dichotomy is masked almost completely by the soft, intimate sounds of the music.
Lenker is not new to the music scene. For one thing, she’s the frontwoman of Big Thief, a Brooklyn-based indie rock band whose 2016 and 2017 albums “Masterpiece” and “Capacity” were some of the best in their genre. But Lenker has been making music since long before she met Big Thief co-founder Buck Meek (with whom she also released “a-sides” in 2014). In fact, she’s been recording and releasing music since she was a young teenager, partially thanks to the influence of her father, whom she’s described as eagerly pushing her down the road to child pop stardom. And this is far from the most unusual thing about Lenker, who was born into a religious cult, had a near-death experience at age five and spent the next few years of her childhood living out of her family’s van (Pitchfork, “Big Thief’s Adrianne Lenker is One of a Kind,” 04.06.17). While her songs don’t usually refer to these events in specific terms, you can feel the weight of her past in each track, and it’s easy to sense that they were written by a woman wise beyond her 27 years. Her songs do sometimes feel like a glimpse at a memory, providing the listener with glimmers of a picture that only Lenker knows in full.
Technically, the quiet, acoustic atmosphere of the record is a stylistic shift from Lenker’s more electrified folk-rock sound with “Big Thief,” but it’s not a startling change. The minimalism suits her songs well, and it’s always been easy to picture her voice paired with more stripped-down instrumentation. Lenker’s vocals are unique; she possesses a heartbreakingly beautiful voice that is filled with intangible contradictions. She sounds both strong and fragile, gentle and severe, delicate yet a little rough around the edges. At times she is a sturdy and grounded contralto; at others she is a fluttering, bird-like soprano. Ultimately, it is the untrained, whispered quality of her voice that contributes most to its ethereality. She doesn’t sound quite like anyone else, particularly anyone within the realm of indie rock.
The songwriting on “abysskiss” feels slightly different from her work with Big Thief as well. While Big Thief’s songs feel similarly mysterious and intimate, they are colored with characters and stories that the listener can nearly piece together. On “abysskiss,” her lyrics are more cryptic, yet filled with imagery and poetic phrasing. “No one can be my man/No one can be my woman,” she repeats like an echo on the verses of “from,” surrounding a series of vague, interrelated vignettes: “One ear to the ground/One dog at my neck/One tongue to my tongue/Wanting to protect me from…One ear to the floor/My dog barking loud/I couldn’t tell for sure/Where the screaming sound was coming from…One ear to your womb/Puppy on the floor/Baby’s coming soon/I wonder if she’ll know where she’s come from.”
The following track, “womb,” is a message to an unknown recipient that feels tenderly open yet not quite decipherable: “Dripping your tears/Like a precious warm spring/My heart will always find you when your heart freely sings… When you hold me to your breast you’re bleeding as I bleed/Please reveal the question to me, let the answers leave.” On “symbol,” one of the more rhythmically driven tracks on the album, her words flutter out with alliteration, forming images that feel like ripples on a lake: “Fly make flea, make haste, make waste, eight makes infinity/Times I’ve tried to make breaks, embrace for the enemy/Meet my face to face, time try to find the diamond/Counting time as time counts me, the river to the island.” And on “what can you say,” she recounts a story with fuzzy details but unequivocal pain: “I’ve been busy turning into more transparent/I could look a lot like you/ For the sharp glass cutting of the cold wind/The sharp glass losing of your best friend/The story bruising as its written.”
“abysskiss” is a record that sounds both intimate and wide open all at once. Lenker doesn’t sound far away; in fact, it feels like she could be sitting right next to you. Yet the songs leave some space between the listener and the woman who penned them. Lenker doesn’t quite let you into her world, but she allows you to follow her closely, leaving a trail marked with both pain and beauty. The record ends as subtly as it begins: “To die in your arms/Your words forming again,” Lenker nearly whispers before one quiet final note rings out on her guitar.