‘Two Hands’ grants Big Thief humanity, divine powers

On Oct. 11, indie folk band Big Thief released their second critically acclaimed album of 2019, titled “Two Hands.” Guest Columnist Meghan Hayfield deemed the record “a visual, visceral listen.” Courtesy of Martin Schumann via Wikimedia Commons

Big Thief’s “Two Hands,” released on Oct. 11, is a soft form of electricity, buzzing without having to blare its magnificence. The album, which was recorded completely live, is organic and raw, placing the intimate connection between Big Thief’s members at the forefront.

The album’s sometimes disturbing lyrics create a psychological investigation similar to past albums. In the opening song, “Rock and Sing,” Adrienne Lenker, the group’s frontwoman, sings, “Without his body/ Naked and bare/Quiet and obviously not there/I am that naked thing/Swimming in air.” The lyrics are rooted in physical realities yet layered on dreamlike images, lending for an individualized interpretation. None of Big Thief’s lyrics are ever concrete, instead allowing for imaginations to roam free. Lenker’s voice mirrors these images, ghostly and crooning from above.

Lenker’s angelic, crawling vocals cut through every song, each word heavy in her mouth. Lyrics throughout reference our own inability to find answers, catharsis, relief. Lenker sings of mysteries lurking in the air we breathe, the creatures of the sky and beings we imagine.

The album contrasts bloody and fearful images with playful magic. In “Wolf,” which begins with the soft strum of an acoustic guitar that mirrors Lenker’s creeping voice, she sings, “Mermaids don’t kill/That’s the way they sing so fine,” and, “The wolf is howling for me.” Yet she contrasts this whimsicality with foreboding and gruesome imagery: “When she holds me in her jaw/All my blood dripping/Will I be free/ To cease gripping?” This juxtaposition cultivates in an eerie and nightmarish song.

This delicately touched upon, barely noticeable violence builds around much of the album. “Shoulders” sounds nearly upbeat; a steady pulse from the guitar and percussion almost hides the lyrics Lenker is singing: “They found you in the morning/The blood was on your shoulders/They found you at the corner/Your head was doubled over/ And the blood of the man who killed my mother with his hands/Is in me/It’s in me/ In my veins.” This dark imagery, while not always heard, is felt.

“Two Hands” surrounds Lenker’s voice in steady percussion, so that you can feel the sound moving around band members, circling an orbit that is otherworldly. Lenker’s lyrics embrace the unknown, the mystical questions we will never know the answers to: “Somehow we exist/In the folds/And now we’ll kiss/Both hands/The mystery before us/She’s reaching.” The track harnesses the full energy of the band, so that every instrument is chanting.

You can hear the band members communicating with each other throughout, dancing together as their individual contributions hum in unflinching harmony. Much of the album sounds like a forgotten dream, like sparse images returning in vivid pieces. You can hear Lenker’s sharp and soft voice, but you’re reaching to fill in the empty space between poetic lyrics and the sounds coming not only from instruments but also the people behind them. This creates a visual, visceral listen.

“Forgotten Eyes,” the second song on the album, showcases this relationship between the band and the visual sound. The song is folky, with a simple beat that allows Lenker’s voice to dive into emotion. She wonders, “Is it me who is more hollow as I’m quickly passing by?/And the poison is killing them, but then so am I/As I turn away,” before repeating, “Forgotten tongue is the language of love.” Lyrics throughout the album evoke deep sadness without giving into it.

One of the strongest songs on the album, “Not,” builds powerfully, telling a story that begins with Lenker’s voice and then incorporates an unrelenting guitar solo that seeks catharsis. The band is working to communicate something greater than any individual member. Its anger can only be told as a live take, humming with energy that cannot be harnessed in a polished, clean track. The guitar screams in the center of the song, and swirling around it are Lenker’s words: “Not to die/Not dying/Not to laugh/Not lying/ Not the vacant wilderness vying.” What is it then? “Not” never seems to find its answer. These unanswered yearnings grant Big Thief both humanity and divine powers.

While some songs buzz with so much energy that the sound seems to shiver, others hum along in a softer, easier vibration. “Replaced” is a folk song, its simple lyrics speaking to the band’s reliance on one another: “’Cause the unlit moon would rather hide/And be replaced by the mystery of the stars/’Cause in your room we gather/ To be replaced by the mystery of the heart.” While at other points lyrics paint surreal images, alluding to celestial bodies grants a softness to the song.

The album finishes by continuing the physical and violent imagery of the earlier tracks. “Cut My Hair” is an eerie song with a slow and repetitive beat behind mellow vocals. “Please cut my hair/Take me to the kitchen/What are the chances/You have a scissor?/Maybe a pair/It’s longer than I can even bear.” The song alludes to finality, cutting your hair or attempting to end a relationship, but is never completely allowed conclusion. “Annie reminds me/ The diamond mines are burning/I push her around/But she keeps returning.” Can we ever cut off these dead ends?

The stories Big Thief tells throughout its enchanting fourth album, “Two Hands,” are as haunting as they are easy to listen to. The album’s candid nature allows each instrument freedom, building a layered sound. The band feels at once close by and far above the earth, a force of wisdom that knows not all questions can be answered.

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