In an instant, Adrianne Lenker of Big Thief has the kind of voice to make you reconsider the various complexities of all of your past actions and relationships. The intimacy is so often crushing, showcasing the kind of naked vulnerability that makes you feel like an unwelcome intruder of the mind. On stage, she is especially unassuming, but her voice bleeds with life.
Brooklyn’s Big Thief eschew neat categorisation but their overarching sound is textured folk, the kind that hits you as hard as it meanders. ‘Capacity’ helped drag the group from relative obscurity to a higher plateau after their magnificent 2016 debut, ‘Masterpiec’e, as seen by the additional night needed at Whelan’s to cater for demand.
Without guitarist Buck Meek, currently in the midst of recording a solo project, it was bassist Max Oleartchik and drummer James Krivchenia by Lenker’s side. Masterpiece’s title track is surrounded tonight by Shark Smile and Mythological Beauty, two of their most sonically bold songs to date, both from ‘Capacity’.
Shark Smile is irrevocable. Doleful, breezy guitars ring after the discordant opening moments, Lenker’s voice as arresting and unfiltered live as it is on wax. Mythological Beauty is exploratory, undulating, grunge-folk, that sees Lenker at her most fierce when processing her familial history, “You held me in the backseat with a dishrag/Soaking up blood with your eye,” is what her increasingly intensified vocals almost shout.
There were some charming unrecorded and unreleased gifts, most notably Orange and Not. A five track encore included Not, a simmering exercise in tension-building, ending in controlled, feedback-shrieking pandemonium. Orange, where she sings, “Orange is the colour of my love/Fragile orange”, doubles as an ode to the purity of the natural world.
At the tail-end of Real Love, Lenker, with all the dexterity in the world, shreds and improvises as the feedback-squalling borders the orchestral, her picture-perfect poetic romanticism does not for one moment belie her technical wizardry.
After all, Lenker is an elegist at heart, fashioning her raw and deeply personal verses with true-to-life narratives of love, heartbreak and despair. Through dramatising past wounds and current doubts, and internalising feelings of identity and belonging, she teaches us something valuable with her sweepingly gorgeous warble—nothing can be learned or truly understood without careful self-reflection, and, occasionally, some meaningful self-indulgence.