Original image by Sacha Lecca.
It’s impressive when artists can compile upwards of twenty songs into one album, especially one that moulds and changes enough to keep your attention. In Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You - released as a double album through 4AD on February 11th, 2022 - Adrianne Lenker, Buck Meek, Max Oleartchik, & James Krivchenia from the prolific New York indie group Big Thief, do just that. Stringing you through an ebb and flow of genres; from their classic heavier sound, to songs that resemble Adrianne’s recent solo work, even debuting some country music (complete with a boingy jaw harp played by Lenker’s brother) - they’ve created what critics claim to be their best album yet.
This fifth studio album from Big Thief showcases the group’s ability to create beautiful tunes in any style, while maintaining their unique, raw, and honest sound that has captured the hearts of so many. Recorded over a few months by different engineers in four locations across the US, the tracklist jumps around from one session to another like a melodic montage, reminiscent of a cross-country road trip with its dynamic moments and unpredictable changes.
After a pandemic-induced hiatus, the crew began to work on recording again, this time with the production reins in the hands of their drummer, James Krivchenia. James had the idea of the cross-country project, and wanted to capture the different styles of Lenker’s writing and the way they created music as a band. Over the course of five months they wrote 45 songs, which eventually boiled down to the 20 on Dragon (which is what I’ll address the album as from here on out for the sake of brevity).
I’ll be going through some of the songs from Dragon in the order of the sessions in which they were made, to connect the stylistic dots and show how the songs intertwine.
They began in the forests of New York State, with singer-songwriter Sam Griffin Owes. Here they crafted the folkier songs on the record, emulating the soundtrack to a late night campfire. This warm campfire jam feeling matches the album’s cover art (drawn by Lenker), which resembles the members of the band - an owl, a dinosaur, a sparrow, and a bear holding a guitar - playing songs around a fire.
'Certainty' is from this group, with classic folk guitar strumming and a stripped-down drum kit, where Lenker sings about the uncertainty of whether or not you're falling in love. She captures the anxiety of looking too far into the future, with the lines “Maybe I love you is a river so high/Maybe I love you is a river so low/I love you, still don't know" She also reminds us of the childlike belief in magic despite not knowing what it might bring. “My certainty is wild, weaving/For you, I am a child, believing”.
'Heavy Bend' is also from these sessions, which begins with a guitar line and drum beat that sound like the intro to a 90s R&B song. Then Lenker’s vivid poetry brings us right into the dark-yet-beautiful mood of the tune. 'Sparrow' is another from this group, one of the simplest ones on the album, with the same vocal melody carrying throughout the song like a sing along. Only a writer as free from form as Adrianne would rhyme apple with apple, four times in a row!
On 'Blue Lightning', the last of this group, and the final song on the album, you can hear a bit of all of these styles coming together to create a form of its own. One of the members says at the end “So what do we do now?” giving the impression that the group is fully open to evolving their sound from here on out.
Next, in the Topanga Canyon of California, the more experimental tunes with knotty soundscapes were cultivated with the Grammy Award-winning Canadian indie mastermind Shawn Everett, who’s worked with notable bands including The War on Drugs, The Killers and Alabama Shakes.
'Time Escaping', the second track of the album, fills the start of the record with a catchy rhythm of muted guitar notes and complex drum fills. The song’s flowing and transcendental nature could fit perfectly into a film scene showing movement across landscapes. 'Little Things' has a similar feel of breathing in your surroundings with its fast-paced groove, and it spices up towards the end with a gritty little scream from Adrianne.
Taking a turn on “Blurred View”, this song could be classified as trip-hop, similar to Portishead with its slowed tempo and prominent bass parts that drive the song. Here, you have the feeling of unease and the scary energy that sometimes seeps out of Lenker’s sound, with an EQ effect making her voice sound like it’s coming through a telephone and a vivid darkness in her lyrics. I tend to enjoy these songs but this one stopped me in my tracks, as it really does the job of taking you from one mood to another completely - wedged between the contemplative sound of 'Flower of Blood' and the happy-go-lucky knee-tapping country of 'Red Moon'.
'Simulation Swarm', the last of these recordings, has a mellow, folky pop energy. The band chose this song to showcase on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, possibly believing it was more digestible for the pop-inclined listener. In a recent feature with Rolling Stone, Lenker said the track was inspired by personal experiences, including an intense four-day hospitalisation in Brooklyn in 2020.
“I’ve been getting notes that the music has been helping people love and accept themselves in dark times, and to me, that right there is what I want to do,” She told RS. “I don’t want to get to a certain level in my career or be seen as this or that. I just want people to come back to themselves and be able to accept, love or forgive themselves more fully. I want my music to be a guide to people to get closer to themselves — not to me.”
I can definitely say Big Thief’s music has had this kind of an impact on me. Lenker’s brutal honesty in her lyrics can feel like a comforting blanket during a cold winter front, and the band’s release of darker overtones can be cathartic for the listener who is willing to surrender to those moods with them.
After leaving the West Coast, they headed towards The Rocky Mountains and recorded the ethereal acoustic songs that have that familiar Big Thief sound with Dom Monks - the engineer of their last two albums (UFOF, Two Hands). The album begins with their song 'Change', one of the first singles released from Dragon. It speaks of the acceptance of life’s changes, and how like seasons, the creation of music changes in different environments and moments in time. “Death like a door to a place we’ve never been before/Death like space/the deep sea/a suitcase” brings feelings of confronting the unknown, and accepting the death of things that once were. She even relates that to her romantic relationships with “Could I be happy for you, when I see you talk with her like we used to”.
The title track, 'Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You', portrays Lenker’s magic so delicately with her twinkly finger-picked chords and her vocal melodies that dance up and down the scale. Her line “I believe in you, even when you need to recoil" honours the space people need to heal on their own. It gives the listener a taste of Lenker’s unconditional love that you become familiar with throughout her catalogue.
Another from this session is 'No Reason' - where they had longtime Carole King flautist Richard Hardy feature with a simple but soulful flute after the crew met him in Telluride, Colorado. This song has delight in its sound, accompanied by its hopeful vocal melody, contrary to its lyrics “City of salt, bone, and bell tower/Country of ice, rain and wild flower/Pickin" out the wreath for the funeral lamp”.
Lastly, they headed to Tucson, Arizona, where they recorded some barn-raising country with Dr. Dog’s Scott McMicken. The third track “Spud Infinity” is the first song that brings in this classic country, which is the furthest from what listeners of Big Thief would expect. This song speaks about what it takes “to heal the celestial body”, a new-age ode to inner-healing and self-love. “When I say celestial, I mean extra terrestrial, I mean accepting the alien you’ve rejected in your own heart” is the striking line from this one. It’s a nostalgic nod to Big Thief lovers with Lenker’s theme of writing about aliens and extraterrestrials.
They even got Mat Davidson of Twain to sit in on the Arizona session and feature on many of the songs with his fiddle, upright bass, piano, and pedal steel guitar. He plays a mean and memorable fiddle line in 'Red Moon', where the country stays strong with Adrianne yelling “That’s my grandma” in a southern accent - referring to Dianne Lee, her grandmother.
'Wake Me Up To Drive' is the outlier in this group of recordings, opening with an accordion, then joined with a drum machine and a groovy tapping riff on guitar. The song describes the feeling of wanting to see everything on a road trip, no matter how tired you may be from staying up late to drive or watching the sunrise without a moment of shut-eye. “Even if I’m tired I don’t wanna miss the ride” Lenker sings, reminiscing of singing along to a well-known song, blasting it while driving through the hills and valleys along the highways of America.
My personal favourite from this album is 'Promise is a Pendulum', which I later discovered was fully engineered and mixed by Lenker herself. This tune showcases her solo performance, including one of those open tunings that she pulls off so well - nuanced with the sounds of wind chimes and organic happenings that surrounded her at the time, very similar to the way she included organic sounds in her latest solo release Songs and Instrumentals.
She writes “I could never do all of these things'' - build the ether/make a sparrow/build a rainbow/make the earth turn” speaking of the things the earth has created that man cannot, and the imperfect nature of all things human - like jealousy and fear. She expresses the changing tides of our human ways and the promises we make to ourselves and others. How a promise, like a pendulum, swings back and forth - sometimes we keep our promises, and sometimes we don’t; but in knowing this, we can accept it as a part of our nature.
The stories on this record represent the concepts that shape us and nature in similar ways.
Like they’ve done in the past, they incorporate stories about time, love, seasons, and perspectives that come from the different walks of life that Lenker and her band have shared. She speaks closely to her listeners, writing about things we all feel, but can’t always say aloud. The way the group includes original sounds from their recordings on the final record - with count-ins, queues, conversations with Adrianne’s dog, and laughs - they invite you into their memories of the trip that changed who they are and how they make music as a band.
This album is not for the listener that enjoys a solitary theme in a record. The way the band mixed the order of these songs makes you feel as though you are on a rollercoaster. In an interview with Vulture, Lenker stated - “At each new session, we completely forgot about the other ones. We weren’t thinking of trying to match the sounds or continuity at all. I think it created these variations between the sonic qualities and even our energy that, to me, just makes for a much more interesting album. We constructed what felt more like a playlist rather than everything having one continuous vibe.”
I was speaking to a friend who previously hadn’t enjoyed Big Thief’s music, who, following this album, said with light in her eyes that she had finally connected to their music. These tunes reach a more diverse audience of music lovers, and seem to be more radio friendly than their previous work.
At first sight, the album artwork for this record didn’t pull me in the way that their previous covers have. I knew I had to purchase the vinyl to see what secrets were hidden inside, and I’m so very glad that I did. I discovered that the plain cover artwork was a front, concealing a gift for those who want to dive into this project. Once you open the record gatefold, the panels glow with a collage of brightly coloured film photographs that were taken along their journey - revealing the tenderness they share with one another and the innocent silliness they embody as a crew. It immediately pulls you into their story, getting to see all of these precious moments they shared in the creation of Dragon.
Photos by Rachel Andie
I recommend not putting pressure on yourself to listen to the whole album in one sitting, which is what I did for my first dive into it. I felt a bit of a creative overload when I did, and it took a few listens to digest it. The way the songs all bounce off of each other makes it feel as though you’re jumping from one chapter of a book to another. As Lenker said, they made it feel like a playlist, and just like a playlist, you have the chance to come in and out at different places and still feel welcomed with each listen.
Earlier this week Live Nation announced that Big Thief will be coming to Aotearoa in December on their Dragon tour, with a show at The Powerstation in Auckland on December 3rd, and in Wellington at The Opera House on December 4th. The tickets go on sale today (Friday, March 25th) at 12pm, so hop on that quickly before they sell out the show in a day or two. It is very exciting to know we’ll be able to see this album toured freshly after its creation.
Big Thief’s drummer Max Oleartchik shared in an interview that he spoke to his mother on the phone and when she asked how it was to be playing music again, he responded “Well it’s like, we’re a band, we talk, we have different dynamics, we do the breaths, and then we go on stage and suddenly it feels like we are now on a dragon. And we can’t really talk because we have to steer this dragon.”
You can really feel that exact energy when they perform live, as if they’re making a new type of magic on the spot, even after playing the same songs on tour over and over. Don’t miss your chance to see them steer that dragon this upcoming summer while performing the songs created in this new earth they have made with one another.
Photos by Rachel Andie
We believe in you too, Big Thief - Thank you for pushing all kinds of boundaries with your art, and for inviting us to push the limits of our creative comfort zones alongside you.
You can purchase the double LP Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You here in black or in recycled vinyl.
- Rachel Andie
02. Time Escaping
03. Spud Infinity
05. Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You
07. Little Things
08. Heavy Bend
09. Flower of Blood
10. Blurred View
11. Red Moon
12. Dried Roses
13. No Reason
14. Wake Me up to Drive
15. Promise Is a Pendulum
16. 12,000 Lines
17. Simulation Swarm
18. Love Love Love
19. The Only Place
20. Blue Lightning