Big Thief deal in small details. Case in point: worms. Frontwoman Band leader Adrienne Lenker cannot stop talking about worms. On Strange, she considers the “billions of worms” boiled to create the silk sheets of our beds. On Terminal Paradise, she asks: “Worm/ Will you return me/ To the robin’s beak”. On Contact, she urges a woman named Jodi to “wrap [her] in silk”. What produces silk? That’s right, worms.
This peculiar fascination isn’t unmotivated. These tracks show how beings as insignificant as worms pervade our everyday life, from our bedsheets, to our clothing, to the karmic cycle of rebirth. Big Thief’s great heist is to smuggle life’s biggest questions into its smallest constituents.
The band’s commitment to finding transcendence in the everyday is reflected in ‘U.F.O.F.’s’ simple palette. Almost every track revolves around guitar arpeggios and gently brushed drums, courtesy of Lenker and drummer James Krivchenia. Guitarist Buck Meek is employed in a predominantly timbral role, contributing swelling guitars and xylophones. The end result is a sparse record that prioritises lyricism over flashy rock production.
The opening track Contact is one of two exceptions to this rule, however. This track closes to a woman’s scream and a haphazard, dissonant guitar riff. The song ends with the lyric: “She makes me sing/ She is both dreamer/ And dream”. Appropriately, ‘U.F.O.F.’ hereafter abandons rock riffage in favour of dream-like folk picking. This might come as a disappointment to fans of Big Thief’s previous records. Little on ‘U.F.O.F.’ approaches ‘Masterpiece’s’ guitar freak-out Real Love or the unflagging groove of ‘Capacity’s’ Shark Smile.
The songs that follow are lyrically obtuse, even psychedelic. Lines like: “Twirling of the dime, splitting of the mind/ Drawing constellations ’til the stars align” could be ripped from a pothead’s trip-journal. Meanwhile, near title-track UFOF condenses an entire Philosophy module into a single verse: “There will soon be proof/ That there is no alien/ Just a system of truth and lies/ The reason, the language/ And the law of attraction”.
‘U.F.O.F.’ is far from a series of heady philosophical announcements, however. Like their previous releases, ‘U.F.O.F.’ attends to the everyday, and in particular to the natural world. Flowers appear more than once on the record as a symbol of death and renewal. When a bug splatters against a wind shield on Century, the narrator wonders if death is as unceremonious for people. “Centuries flower”, but human lives wither away. Lenker shares similar sentiments on Terminal Paradise, where she sings: “See my death become a trail/ And the trail leads to a flower”. Multiple motifs repeat and intertwine across the album, from aliens, to dreams, to water, to – yes, worms.
Musically, ‘U.F.O.F.’ mines the same elfish vein for much of its runtime. It can be difficult to prise songs apart – particularly on the record’s first half. UFOF, Cattails, From and Open Desert are amongst the record’s strongest songs, but you can only expect so much when each track competes for the same title. Cattails’ country bounce and Open Desert’s electric guitar cannot disguise the fact that UFOF has already won the prize for prettiest fingerpicking pattern.
‘U.F.O.F.’ was recorded quickly, with some songs only written hours before recording. Thought this spontaneity likely helped to capture the original spirit of the songs, more time could have been spent diversifying the album’s arrangements. Big Thief might be preoccupied with nature, but the arrangements on ‘U.F.O.F.’s’ first half sound almost assembly line.
Fortunately, ‘U.F.O.F.’s’ second half chucks a few spanners into the works. Bassist Max Oleartchik contributes rubbery lines to both Century and Strange. Jenni, the penultimate track, is a slow dirge, with the guitarists helping themselves to generous splashes of distortion. Crucially, Jenni opens with an abrupt snippet from Contact – Lenker just gets out the word “dream”. If everything after Contact is a dream, Jenni is the wake-up call.
Contact and Jenni are loud bookends to a dream. How you like this dream will determine how ‘U.F.O.F.’ fares for you. Those looking for rock and roll will doze off. For the rest, ‘U.F.O.F.’ is full of subtle charm and intricate lyricism. Self-same arrangements cannot bury Big Thief’s song-writing chops.
A must for folk buffs and worm enthusiasts alike.