Published May 25, 2016Naming your debut record Masterpiece, regardless of the intention, is a dangerous play. But that's only because of our narrow interpretation of what a masterpiece should typically be: a monolithic statement, the kind of artistic tour de force that makes the whole world shut up and listen.
Why, though? It's not difficult to argue that each living thing is a masterpiece in itself, no matter how big or how small, but we reserve magnum opus status in music only for records like To Pimp a Butterfly or Blonde On Blonde. Not every child can be Martin Luther King Jr., just as not every album can be Purple Rain. Can't a drop that ripples in the pond be as significant as a tsunami?
Brooklyn's Big Thief would argue that it can. In her own words, singer and chief songwriter Adrianne Lenker says her new album is about "the masterpiece of existence, which is always folding into itself, people attempting to connect, to both shake themselves awake and to shake off the numbness of certain points in their life." The album deftly weaves these ideas into loose, earthy rock'n'roll, with brief forays into folk — see the gossamer lilt of "Lorraine," or the hypnotic, finger-plucked acoustic guitar that haunts the difficult love story on "Velvet Ring." Neither are particularly engaging, but they're sweet nonetheless.
Masterpiece is built on moments in life that could feel either trivial or monumental, but are truthfully, with the gift of reflection, all equally weighted: a motel tryst in Sin City on the melancholic "Vegas" stands beside the devastating "Real Love," a meditation on the perils and glories of true connection, and the unending pain of being bound to others. "Real love makes your lungs black," Lenker sings. "Real love is a heart attack." These are simple feelings laid bare, but in her voice, above a snarling crash of cymbals and overdrive, it feels like it bears the weight of the world.
Lenker's writing in general is vivid, and vibrates with the kind of verve its subject matter demands. As the title track bursts out of the gate with a weighty '90s guitar riff and mid-tempo, head-nodding beat, she's a gritty, majestic everywoman poet, mixing the fantastical with rough reality: "Old stars, filling up my throat," she says to a loved one on a hospital bed. "You gave them to me when I was born, now they're coming out." Regardless of the album's scope — tackling love, death and sex — Lenker's nuanced songwriting proves she's aware that the moments in life that seem small build the lens through which we end up viewing the world. The band's sound, which is consistently dynamic but often tastefully reserved, reflects that.
In fact, it may be this microscope on the "little things" that makes Masterpiece such a compelling album. On the dark, dreamy sway of "Paul," Lenker drifts through a love story full of typical youthful bad behaviour: drinking too much, being reckless with feelings, manufacturing thrills and playing games with relationships. The tempest storms and comes to rest against the backdrop of a small town scene most would be familiar with: "I drove in circles 'round the freight train yard / and he turned the headlights off / Then he pulled the bottle out / then he showed me what was love." Similarly, "Interstate" uses the nostalgia of blurry memories to trace the march of time.
The album's universal connections — the oneness and similarities of existence, for better and worse — come full circle on the album's glittering finale, first in a blue minor key, and then, slowly, softly erupting into hopeful, major key triumph, as Lenker sings, "I see all parallels" over and over again. Masterpiece may be flawed, but try to think of a magnum opus, or a life, that isn't. The most exciting part is that it's likely Big Thief's best is yet to come. (Saddle Creek)