by Craig Howieson
Five months. That is the period of time between the release of Big Thief’s last record U.F.O.F. and this, their stunning fourth album, Two Hands. It is a rate of output that is now almost unheard of, drawing parallels with the prolificacy of Dylan in late ‘60s, when songs seemingly poured out without losing their potency.
The self-described “earth twin” of the “celestial” U.F.O.F, it is easy to see the distinction. The mirage of stars and dreamscapes of their third record gives way to the beauty that is to be found in the dust and the dirt. The group are taking a pick to baked ground, loosening the soil and unearthing the secrets it contains, finding the ‘forgotten plans in the fossils of earth’ (Forgotten Eyes).
Recorded almost entirely live – with the four piece as physically close to each other as possible – Two Hands sounds raw and vital. Held within the clattering enthral of Forgotten Eyes are traces of The Band, and the uninhibited atmosphere of the Basement Tape sessions. Not is a stalker of consciousness, as the animalistic prowl of anger and desperation in Lenker’s voice gives way to a wailing Buck Meek guitar solo. There is a presence here that would be near impossible to capture with overdubs, and the live nature of the recording also compliments the vocal interplay of Lenker and Meek whose voices have never sounded better together. Meek’s subtle backing shoulders some of the lyrical weight, while highlighting Lenker’s dynamism and range.
The group still spin webs of ethereal free form folk, as found weaving through the dizzying steps of These Girls. The salving howl of vocals and acoustic guitar tapestry of Wolf are also a warm reminder of what has come before. In fact, the tracks on Two Hands run like an ECG graph. Each calming moment of reflection is almost immediately followed by an urgent surge. The sequencing enlivens the LP and it is the songs infused with that immediacy that stops you in your tracks.
On Two Hands, perhaps more than ever, Big Thief channel many of the great songwriters, yet this time elevate themselves to stand alongside them, melting down age old structures to create their own twisted classics. Golden ages of music don’t exist – they are a myth constructed of nostalgia and hindsight. If there is any justice, Big Thief will also one day be viewed through this lens as Two Hands is another standout moment in their ever growing – yet still fledgling – discography: a visceral and touching record, and all the more startling considering its proximity to its predecessor. In ignoring the notion of these golden ages, it is important to take stock of what is special happening around you right now. What we have done to deserve Big Thief no one knows, so let’s just be thankful that we have them around.
Secret Meeting score: 91