Album: Adrianne Lenker – songs and instrumentals review

by Mia Hughes

Cementing the notion that Lenker is an artist who could very feasibly be considered one of the all-time greats one day, songs and instrumentals do not fail to astonish

It seems obvious to me that decades from now, when we talk about the best songwriters of this generation, Adrianne Lenker’s name will come up above most others. In her work with the Brooklyn-based band she fronts, Big Thief, she and her bandmates have created some of the most intriguing, masterful and breathtaking folk music of the 21st century. Of course, there’s a mixture of elements feeding the alchemy that makes it so, such as virtuoso instrumentation, which means there is a long-nurtured chemistry between the band members, and the way that they feed off of each other. As a group, they’re undoubtedly incredible. But I’m inclined to think that it’s Adrianne Lenker’s songwriting that is really, really, once in a lifetime.

Her work as a solo artist might prove that better than anything. These two companion pieces – songs and instrumentals, which comprises two long musical collages – make up her third full-length solo release (excluding her past life as a would-be teenage pop star). Divorced from Big Thief’s rock-based stylings and the back-and-forth of creating collaboratively, she presents these songs in the form of bare acoustic tracks with little to no embellishment. When stripped to the bones, we see her songwriting in its most potent form, and it’s truly something to behold.

songs and instrumentals are deeply beautiful works that were created immediately after lockdown began in a remote, wilderness cabin. Consider songs the central piece, while instrumentals is a sort of epilogue, consisting of the instrumental improvisations with which Lenker would warm up and down at with the beginning and end of each recording day. Lenker was in the midst of a breakup, and this heartsickness is at the core of her creation here. It often shows itself directly in the lyrics, but it almost feels infused at a deeper level than that, as if the songs are tethered to her in some way. Lenker is really good at making songwriting seem like something mystical – while, somehow, simultaneously very much tied to the body and earth. 

In demonstration of that, and perhaps inspired by the wilderness setting of the album sessions, she often uses the language of nature to illustrate these songs. Pine and red oak, juniper, blueberries; wren and wolf and crow. In invoking this imagery throughout songs that deal with her personal turmoil, it’s almost as if she opens up her mind and the earth to exist as one and the same; and as she moulds it into song, her hands and her voice too. When listening, this feels like some kind of spiritual truth that only Lenker could lay bare. She’s unafraid to consider the idea of death, too, not as a topic in itself but as a means to explore her heartache. The first verses of ingydar, for example, describe a dead horse in beautiful yet gruesome terms, and this appears to act as a metaphor for the end of Lenker’s relationship – ‘Everything eats and is eaten’, she sings. The idea is not macabre or cumbersome – merely acknowledged for the fact that it is. This, too, brings her closer to some kind of connection with the earth.

Two of the record’s most affecting moments are anything and zombie girl, which respectively see Lenker reflect on her breakup in opposing – or perhaps complementing – ways. anything is a desperate, immediate kind of heartsickness, where nothing but pining for the past and what you wish could still be can break through. Lenker runs through an itinerary of now-painful instances of nostalgia for the relationship, before proclaiming on the chorus, ‘I don’t wanna talk about anything’, pleading just for a meaningful, wordless moment instead. Particularly because it comes on an album that mostly sees Lenker communicate with carefully threaded poetry, the directness of this track is entirely gutting. Meanwhile, on zombie girl she ruminates on her feeling of loss in an existential sense: ‘Emptiness, tell me about your nature / Maybe I’ve been getting you wrong’. This stage of heartbreak is duller, more introspective, and the beginning of gleaning some kind of meaning. These tracks stand out because of just how incisively poignant they are – and how well they demonstrate Lenker’s near unrivalled gift for songs that knock the emotional wind out of you.

Yet it’s not just her lyrics that make her such an exceptional songwriter. One of her greatest strengths is her grasp on melody, and how she pulls the song like she’s a puppeteer with a turn of her voice, or wields a finger-picked guitar line like it is a well-sharpened knife. Her singing voice must be mentioned too; it’s totally unlike any other. It feels simultaneously warm and harsh; simultaneously earthy and otherworldly. Much like, to use the clichés, Dylan or Mitchell, it’s a voice that positions her songs instantly in a kind of untouchable realm, like they’re stamped as classics from the beginning.  

It’s all of this that really makes songs feel like the main event, but by no means should instrumentals be considered unimportant. There’s something distinctly moving about listening to Lenker express wordlessly as she does here, particularly owing to its improvisational nature and its spontaneous ebb and flow; it feels like we’re listening to something deep and true that isn’t conveyable with words just flow through her. There’s an intimacy to its recording as well – we hear background crackles and hums, the sound of rain on the roof, and even Lenker’s breathing. This only heightens the sense that, instead of listening to something crafted specifically to be heard, we’re eavesdropping on a much more candid process. 

That these albums are so brilliant isn’t at all surprising, since Lenker has been delivering reliably outstanding music for years now. Yet she never fails to astonish, whether it’s a first listen or an album you’ve heard a thousand times. songs and instrumentals really just cement that she’s an artist who could very feasibly be one day considered one of the all-time greats. If that sounds like hyperbole, let’s revisit in 40 years.  

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