By Sean Hannah (@Shun_Handsome)
Despite existing on seemingly disparate musical strata, hip-hop and indie rock share more common ground than one might presume. Both genres, generally speaking, tend to feature lyrics that serve to perpetuate distinct personae for their respective artists, with hip-hop espousing delusions of grandeur and indie rock false humility and overzealous self-deprecation. Artists from either camp who indulge too blithely in these tropes tend to catch flak from audiences and critics alike; materialistic, hyper-masculine rappers are written off as tacky or contrived while lugubrious rock singers are dismissed as unconvincing and unnecessary.
Though Brooklyn-based Big Thief fall into the latter category, their self-effacement is hardly disingenuous and their keen lyrics suggest a kinship with some of hip-hop’s more inspired songwriters. On Capacity, Big Thief’s sophomore LP, the group deliver a reassuring continuation of the sound that so frequently impressed on their debut Masterpiece and refines the poetic lyricism of front-woman Adrianne Lenker, which effortlessly conflated unyielding sincerity with gut-wrenching viscera.
Similarly to Masterpiece, Capacity meshes together the warm guitar sound of late-‘60s/early-‘70s roots rock and garage music’s characteristically unpolished veneer. “Shark Smile,” a Springsteenian tale of geographical travel and personal travail, incorporates a CCR-inspired chord progression to quell the disquiet of the song’s paroxysmal intro. On more subdued tracks like “Black Diamonds,” the lightly-distorted instrumentation butters up the otherwise dry album’s even-tempered musicianship (thanks to unsung heroes Buck Meek, Max Oleartchik, and James Krivchenia). But that’s not to say that the quieter songs falter without this roughness. The record’s opener “Pretty Things,” with its gentle finger-picked guitar arpeggios, would be perfectly in place as a McCartney or Lennon ballad on The White Album but for its inimitable lyrical content courtesy of Lenker. Soft or loud, Big Thief can sustain an intensity that lesser bands could only hope to achieve.
As a lyricist, Lenker places the listener just outside of the intimacy of her songs’ characters. Her words conversational and personal, Lenker’s songs sounds like private interactions we’ve entered in on, yet from which we haven’t been shooed. Take “Haley” for example, whose lines “Just like how it used to be, Haley/ Kicking around, burying letters we wrote” capture the sanguine nostalgia of childhood friendship despite the distinct non-universality of the scene. Even if the memory isn’t accessible to everyone, the bond between these two characters is.
Perhaps Capacity’s most pored-over song is “Mythological Beauty” due to its reportedly autobiographical third verse, but the verse preceding this highly-discussed stanza truly bespeaks Lenker’s talent for crafting lyrics. Referring to her mother’s venture into young parenthood, the line “Seventeen, you took his cum and you gave birth to your first life” evinces Lenker’s aptitude for writing lyrics that are frank without becoming crass, personal but not indulgent. In this regard, she’s like Frank Ocean, another songwriter who may similarly speak bluntly in his songs, yet remain stoic enough not to render a line licentious or trite. Lenker’s air of aloofness is facilitated in part by her Karen Carpenter-like penchant for keeping an even-tempered voice throughout these songs in spite of the sensationalist subject matter therein. Singing the affirmation “I am a beautiful bird, fluttered and floating” on the album’s title track, Lenker barely rises above the song’s mix, opting instead for a more furtive tone in her vocals. Her voice may be meek, but her ideas aren’t.
Thematically, much of the album deals with the confrontation (or lack thereof) of trauma; “You can wake up now, Mama/ From your protective coma,” Lenker sings on “Coma,” describing the harrowing situation of a woman feigning sleep to withstand a (presumably sexual) assault. “I can feel the numbness accompanying my plight,” from “Mary,” likewise describes the employment of unhealthy disengagement as a transitory coping mechanism for abjection. Other times, the band depict intrepidness as a means of conquering distress, as in the line “Kissing on the vampire, Kissing on the werewolf/ We have no enemies” from “Objects.” Singing in the first or second person, Lenker explores with adept laconicism highly personal accounts of tragedy, far beyond the lightweight clichés of unrequited love and perennial ennui that’s become well-trod territory in the indie rock community. As such, a more apt lyrical comparison might be to Earl Sweatshirt, whose ever-increasing terseness also explores personal issues (alcoholism, drug addiction, parental abandonment) with unflinching honesty and a proclivity for astute self-reflection.
Though Capacity never loses focus or control of its larger narrative, it suffers the pitfalls of a group whose musical identity is such that significant deviation would jar listeners, leaving it rooted in a fully developed, yet oft-repeated sound that lags in places on the album’s latter half. The rustic instrumentation of “Haley,” while appropriate among the song’s bucolic imagery, fails to keep the track afloat and instead marks it as nondescript. The same is true of “Black Diamonds” inasmuch as its tried and true guitar/bass/drums paradigm reduces the closing track to a modest gesture rather than a grand statement more apropos of the album’s previous heart-rending content.
To be sure, there are no bad songs on Capacity; the album is a warm, ruminative exploration of personal strife and triumph with far more successes than failures, yet its musical consistency at times stymies it from achieving notability on each cut. Still, Big Thief are perceptive and intuitive enough to compensate for these minor shortcomings, and Capacity serves as a confirmation that the brilliance they displayed on Masterpiece wasn’t just beginner’s luck.