Album Review: Capacity by Big Thief

Big Thief’s sophomore album “Capacity” feels like a vessel for lead singer Adrianne Lenker to process her tumultuous life. Hers has been a life that is purpose made for storytelling; spending her earliest years in a cult, almost dying in a freak accident, spending years living out of a van, earning a scholarship for a prestigious music school.

These stories of love and loss, of violence and healing and of friendship and family, all come together to create the intimate Capacity. It feels as though you’re reading someone’s diary, a certain feeling that you shouldn’t know all this about another human being. Dark and personal lyrics are complimented with Lenker’s soft, tender vocals, while her bandmates create swirling melodies that package up raw, painful moments and offer them with a serving of finger-picked guitar lines and steadying drum beats.  

This mix of overtly dark lyrics and soothing music can be somewhat unsettling. This is the case on Watering especially where Lenker details an assault from the perspective of both the victim and the perpetrator. The lyrics are violent and distressing (“He cut off my oxygen / And my eyes were watering / As he tore into my skin / Like a lion”) with multiple refrains of the word “screaming” particularly unnerving. In the break between the point of view switching between victim and perpetrator, Lenker’s “oohs” almost sound more like she is screaming or wailing than singing.

This, the most disturbing moment on the album, transitions to Coma. A delicate track that begins only with guitar chords before gradually, harmonizing voices and restrained drums are introduced. It feels as though Lenker is staring blankly into the distance as she tries to come to terms with how her body has been violated. When she sings “when you wake up / you wake up…” it sounds as though Buck Meek’s finger-picked guitar line is gently awakening her from her “protective coma.” Despite the heavy subject matter, you could find yourself being lulled to sleep by the hushed vocals, so soft they’re almost a murmur.

Lenker also has a penchant for delivering matter-of-fact statements in such a way that they are deeply affecting. On opening track Pretty Things she makes sex seem almost like a religious ritual; “Holding my wrist to the bed / He was thrusting and moaning / And pressing his head / To my temple / His head was a temple.” Later on Mythological Beauty, the track that details the freak accident that almost took young Lenker’s life, she is blunt in her description of sex once again, peeling it back to its most physical elements, “Seventeen, you took his cum / And you gave birth to your first life.” Perhaps it is an attempt to humanise her mother or to make some statement about how all of us are the same, have the same urges, underneath it all. Or perhaps it’s just simply the way Lenker likes to write, prose among poetry. Much of Mythological Beauty is descriptive without embellishment and yet it is one of the most evocative tracks on the album. It conjures up memories of childhood; the sights (rented a house in Nisswa, Minnesota / shrapnel and oil cans, rhubarb in the yard), the smells (standing beneath the oak tree by the front door / you were inside baking bread), the sounds (you held me in the backseat with a dishrag, soaking up blood with your eyes / I was just five and you were twenty-seven / praying, “Don’t let my baby die”).

Mary, named after Lenker’s best friend, unfolds in a similar way, evocative and nostalgic. It’s a stream of consciousness, an outpouring of memories – floods on the plains, clothes pins on the floor, marching up the mountain, cheap drink, the marching band… The decision to use a piano and organ for the recorded version of this track (Lenker uses a guitar live) differentiates it from other tracks on the album. The twenty-five year old singer-songwriter’s voice is haunting against the background of the piano and organ on the sprawling track, confirming it as one of the standout moments of the album.

Capacity finishes with Black Diamonds, a foot-tapping, humming along kind of song. Max Oleartchik’s chilled-out bass line, Buck Meek’s lilting guitar and James Krivchenia’s drums combined with Lenker’s hushed assurance “You could cry inside my arms / you could cry inside my arms like a child / you could cry / you could cry…” create the perfect conclusion to an album that is full of tragic and painful moments that somehow still leaves you feeling warming by the time you’ve reached the end. From violent assault on Watering to near death on Mythological Beauty, Lenker invites us into the world of Capacity in which scars are created and healed, and there’s catharsis to be found in that release.

Rating: 4/5 stars


Album Review: Young As The Morning Old As The Sea by Passenger

Michael Rosenberg’s latest LP, ‘Young As The Morning Old As the Sea’ offers the same kind of experience as his previous works but falls a little short. That is, enjoyable, hummable folk songs that seem to venture into pop territory at times. Unlike on his 7th studio album, Whispers II, Passenger strays from the rawness of his acoustic guitar and voice alone on his newest offering. Here, a band of musicians back the former Brighton busker up and orchestral sounds help to lift up some of the blander songs.

After listening to the full album right through you come to thinking Passenger is going through some kind of mid-life crisis. He sings of longing to travel on the title track but notes that he’s ‘fleeting like fireworks fading too soon,’ mourns his youth on ‘When We Were Young’ and seems to lament lost love on the opening track, ‘cause everything is nothing ’til you’ve got somebody to share it with / somebody to have / somebody to hold.’  

Perhaps Passenger was pining over a lost lover when crafting this record. ‘Beautiful Birds’ (featuring Scottish songstress Birdy ironically) is a melancholy break up tune with touching lyrics while on ‘Somebody’s Love’ Rosenberg seems to warn us to keep those we love close to us, ‘oh when the winds they blow / you’re gonna need somebody to know you / you’re gonna need somebody’s love to fall into.’ The Long Road’ seems to confirm our suspicions as he sings, ‘You found love but you left without it.’

Unfortunately, these melancholy songs seem to drag as Passenger hasn’t managed to notate his introspective thoughts about life and love as astutely and as wittingly as usual. Thankfully, for all the loneliness and sadness that seems to permeate the lyrics of the album, the music isn’t all minor chords and gloom – ‘Anywhere’, for example, is an upbeat and fun track that lifts the mood.

Though it’s an enjoyable and pleasant listen, overall the record is nowhere near as clever and captivating as some of his previous work. However, something tells me Rosenberg won’t be bothered too much by the negative reviews of his latest release. As he sang himself on his album ‘Whispers’ just two years ago, ‘I write songs that come from the heart / I don’t give a f**k if they get into the charts.’

Maybe Young As The Morning Old As The Sea’ isn’t the most affecting of albums, certainly it won’t win any Grammy’s, but perhaps its charm is in its refusal to cater for the critics and just simply be a pleasant listen.

Passenger will return to Vicar Street, Dublin on the 2nd and 3rd of December 2016

Rating: 3.5 / 5

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