Big Thief's previous two albums are explorations into Lenker's past, investigating narratives of family and generational connection through brittle folk tunes. The lead single, 'Mythological Beauty,' was one of the best songs of 2017. The band's lush instrumentation mixed with Lenker's fragile vocals makes me emotional before I even hear the words. It is next level storytelling; I love the way the instrumentation is so full that it creates an emotional cave the audience can crawl into and wallow. Lenker's graphic description of her smashing her head as a child becomes a way of her to connect with her mother. In a moment close to death, there is a connection to the people surrounding us, even if we often don't connect with them. Mother, Daughter, Friend; the characters on Capacity are familiar and ultimately stable identities that Lenker can rely on.
UFOF shrouds the other in a cloud of mystery; the once defined relationships are now amorphous and unclear. The music wanders and feels slightly less rigid. The band includes new elements to the background, like white noise or some casual screams. While Adrianne discusses specific people, their bodies are more ambiguous and untethered from real narratives. The album collapses the spiritual and the real into one coherent space. While still about intimacy and relationships, the scope feels more massive and more exploratory.
My favorite part is probably the space imagery the band utilizes throughout to give the album a more significant, spiritual depth. The title track is a hushed reflection of Lenker connecting with some other person or being. Comparing a person to a UFO is a fruitful analogy and one I have not thought about. Lenker emphasizes both the spiritual, faith-based connection with the other and also its fleeting presence. We really only get one perspective in this song, with no ability to understand how Lenker's compliment is feeling. Space becomes a location to project our sense of wonder and mystery. We can see it, but never truly understand it.
These connections to a mysterious other help give perspective to all of our relationships, situating them in a greater narrative of life and death. On 'Century,' I love the image of flies being crushed on the windshield, the gravity of death trivialized to such a random occurrence. But the rich background and Lenker's attention to detail makes even this small moment feel important and spiritual. UFOF works with tiny, insignificant images and large celestial bodies to create connections between the functions of both. 'Cattails' has images of the titular plant swaying in the wind while pondering the sound produced by Saturn's rings (which is a real phenomenon, who knew!) These images are stitched together and demonstrate the interconnectivity of everything. All relationships, in society or nature, are distinctive and charged with spiritual significance.
UFOF almost feels like a gloat. Adrianne Lenker has casually dropped album after album of creative, spindly folk rock with little dip in quality. I was unsure how a band that had such a massive export would be able to continue to develop, but Big Thief proves they still have so much space to grow. Many of my favorite elements from Capacity are still here but given new breath through thoughtful updates to their sound. 'From' focuses on many of the themes in Capacity but keeps the ambiguity of the other party. 'Wonder if she'll know where she comes from.' Lenker repeats the final word until the end of the song. The emphasis on 'from' implies a spiritual narrative of begetting. We may be able to know who we came from, but the further we look back the more ambiguous that question becomes.
Beyond the lyrical weight, UFOF is just an incredible sounding record. Adrianne Lenker and the gang created a cohesive, and lush album that continues to expand the band's sound while solidifying their style. By shooting for the stars, Big Thief found another way into my heart that feels even richer and deeper than their previous music.