As noted above, I almost saw Big Thief earlier this year. Well, factually, I saw them – as in the people in the band – only I didn’t see them play. The opening acts – one, a super sleepy acoustic act from (I think) Seattle and, the other, something like a jam band – exhausted my wife’s patience at least an hour before Big Thief took the stage.
Big Thief, Masterpiece
The Gateway Drug
“Masterpiece,” a mid-tempo(?) song built from plunging hooks, thick picking and crashing cymbals.
When I heard “Masterpiece” (the song, not the album), 1) I went onto a playlist immediately after the first couplet (“Years, days, makes no difference to me, babe/You always look exactly the same…to me”), and 2) it felt like the album could go just about anywhere. The line, "there's only so much lettin' go you can ask someone to do," doesn't hurt, either.
Adrianne Lenker, Big Thief’s front-person (lead vocals/guitar), has something like the best possible voice for a song like “Masterpiece” – clear, resolute but with a flutter of anxiety in the way it cracks (I guess? Is that a crack?). The contrast lurks in the song in that weakness that lets the narrator hold onto the dodgy relationship(s), while also holding the whole damned thing together. Lenker mumbles as much as she sings – and to good effect (e.g., bone-weary) – so, for all the times I’ve heard this song (takes counting by tens), I could never sort it out without checking the lyrics. Looks like the songs examines a number of relationship, notably the way one aspects of one relationship bleeds into another, and another, and so on.
It’s a dramatic song, musically, which lends it a little immensity – clunky phrasing is deliberate – so, to start a good habit (e.g., actually naming the band), credit to Buck Meek (other guitar), Max Oleartchik (bass), and James Krivchenia (drums) for providing Lenker’s pipes such a lovely stage.
To be honest (and stop me if I’ve said this before), Big Thief inspired this whole “New to Me” project. Driven to curiosity by “Masterpiece” (again, the song), this was one of the first albums I dug into after hearing a big set of singles…and to which I had a very specific reaction. Sit through “Little Arrow,” though – a brittle tune played and sung at a mourning drone – it’s not a song to send you racing to a live show. That’s one thing that made it hard to sell my wife on sticking around past her bedtime after that first sleepy acoustic act.
“Masterpiece” is the biggest song on the album, without question, even if it’s not the fastest. That honor goes to “Humans,” even if it opens without a clear beat, and that probably constitutes this “Masterpieces’” lone “rocker.” “Interstate” comes closest after, but even that one’s at least a step behind mid-tempo. That’s not judging, by the way, as one of those “caveat emptor’ situations: Big Thief is, emphatically, not a “party” band. I mean, god, everyone would collapse in tears in an hour.
Bands that play like Big Thief, no matter how well they do it, and that always make me wonder a bit about why they get into the music/touring lifestyle. They’ll never be Van Halen; they will never have their “Panama” (that said, I’d absolutely love to hear their take on that song). That goes beyond the low-key…everything. They get some big sounds out of those guitars, but only here and there – e.g. “Masterpiece” and the chorus-esque crescendos in “Real Love.” After that, just about everything else they play feels as if their music would get lost to sadly wander in any room that seats more than a couple hundred people.
I can’t see Big Thief hitting the festival circuit, basically, or selling out a big payday venue, at least not at current settings. (Also, massively out of touch, this guy. See Van Halen reference above.) Absent that kind of major payout, I’m just not clear on how they sustain the level of success that even a band like The Fastbacks managed. They all still have day jobs – nothing wrong with that, either (honestly, it only makes them more relatable), but doesn’t that mean your musical career comes with a ceiling and/or a dead-end?
A thought lingers at the back of that: Big Thief makes love, passionately rich music and, realistically, that makes their reasonably presumed future lack of “freedom success” a bit tragic. Going back to “Real Love,” one lyrical snippet I caught in that song – “Momma got drunk and daddy went crazy,” and the way that carries from what feels like a “second mini-chorus” to a, um, “pre-bridge (none of those are things, btw) – finally forced me to start searching the web for Big Thief’s lyrics ("Real Love's"). As it turns out, Big Thief is the Lays potato chips of lyrics – e.g., once you start looking you can’t stop.
Going through their lyrics isn’t a happy experience, for the record, it’s closer to reading the journal of a deeply impressionable girl living with the worst family in any city you can imagine. I didn’t go find lyrics for every song on Masterpiece – just “Real Love,” Velvet Ring,” (also, song) “Masterpiece,” and, just now “Interstate” (song), because, man, that’s either a top 3 track, or shoving its way through that club’s door – and, so far, no, not a single remotely happy song in the whole bunch. Just sorrow, a bad past behind, and relationships destined to dissolve into a puddle of tears ahead. There’s not a bad song on the entire album, though, it only takes the right person to appreciate it. Personally, I picture someone who never cares for herself, in spite of desperate need, because she’s trying to keep the rest of the wounded from slouching into despair. “Misguided martyr music” feels simultaneously glib and not so far off.
I want to wrap this up with the one song from Masterpiece that I pulled onto a later playlist than “Masterpiece,” “Paul” (ugh, links are a mess; that's the song; also, (intense) live performance). If I had a vote (I don’t), this song goes at the emotional/tonal center of the album. It has all the elements – the sorrow, trying to live up to toughness, smart lyrical turns (“I’ll be record player, baby, if you know what I mean/I’ll be the real tough cookie with the whiskey breath/I’ll be the cure and the ______ and the cause of our death”) – just the good storytelling that forms a solid foundation for a lot of my tastes. (Just checked the actual lyrics and the that third bar actually reads, “I’ll be a killer and a thriller and the cause of our death,” and, holy shit, yes, please, let’s hang out.)
By way of a somewhat loose impression, there’s a search at the heart of a lot of the songs on Masterpiece. The woman who narrates the songs, whether it’s Lenker or not, is nothing like a weak person; instead, she comes off strong and resilient, but still searching hard enough for a harbor to take her share of shortcuts. Oh, and the more I listen, the more I think she’s sailing a ship with some number of holes that her past relationships drilled into the sides. It’s personal stuff, in other words, the kind of thing you can’t scale up, not when you’re trying to tell someone something incredibly painful and important. Those are thoughts and songs for intimate spaces. I just wish we could somehow build something bigger that could still accommodate songs like this.
There’s no way everyone likes this album. But for shut-in days, or any night you spend ruing a lifetime of limited choices and bad decisions, Masterpiece has something to say to you.