I spent a lot of time last year thinking about the death of rock and roll. This is not a new concern, I realize—critics have been hearing the genre’s death rattle for longer than I’ve been alive. But after David Bowie kicked off 2016 with an elegy to himself, after Bob Dylan reluctantly accepted the Nobel Prize for literature, after Springsteen took up residence on Broadway, and Tom Petty suddenly passed, I found myself truly afraid that rock music was headed for the history books. I couldn’t get excited about bands I used to love; LCD Soundsystem, the National, and The War on Drugs released records that were very good, but kind of stale. 2017 was a year in which everything with a guitar in it sounded, to me, like dad-rock: nice, but safe.
So I freaked out, about a month ago, when I first heard the Brooklyn-based folk-rock group Big Thief. In a moment when alternative music is dominated by bedroom auteurs, here is an honest-to-god rock band—one with accomplished musicians who know exactly how to complement each other, and a frontwoman whose words and voice can break your heart. Their astonishing sophomore album, Capacity, released last summer, is strange, dark, and hopeful. Its songs are full of intricate guitar arrangements; loud, abstract solos; and surprising chord changes and vocal melodies. But more than all of that, the characters that haunt these songs are what keep me coming back. Capacity is a record about people who have gone through hell and keep on going.
This is the kind of record I can live on for weeks.
Take the album’s second single, “Shark Smile.” After thirty seconds of dissonant squall from guitarist Buck Meek, lead singer-songwriter Adrienne Lenker comes in strumming an earworm of a chord progression over James Krivchenia’s propulsive drumming. By the time Lenker sings the strikingly visual first lines, “She was a shark smile / in a yellow van,” you’re more than ready to hit the road with her.
Lenker’s songwriting is remarkable for its specificity. The last verse of “Shark Smile” begins: “Evelyn’s kiss was oxygen / I leaned over to take it in / As we went howling through the edge of south Des Moines.” Where a lazier writer might have addressed a vague second person or stock term of endearment, Lenker uses proper names and concrete settings throughout the record—Evelyn dies in Des Moines; a mother gives birth in Nisswa, Minnesota; Mary drinks gin in the January rain. These are people and places that sound real, tangible. The particularity of her characters and the situations they encounter bring the album’s themes of sex, death, memory, and hope into focus. Her narrow lens magnifies the universal, and as a result the few moments that do allow cliché—Shark Smile’s “ooh baby” chorus—come off like a release, like stretching your legs after a long drive.
The same is true of Capacity’s first track, “Pretty Things,” which describes the last gasp of a violent love affair:
There is a meeting in my thighs
Where, in thunder and lightning,
Men are baptized,
In their anger and fighting,
Their deceit and lies.
I’ve got lips like sugar,
Lips like sugar.
Besides taking the title of goth-pop band Echo and the Bunnymen’s 1987 hit “Lips Like Sugar” and making it into something darker than that band ever did, “Pretty Things” immediately places Lenker alongside other recent breakthroughs—Katie Crutchfield of Waxahatchee, Michelle Zauner of Japanese Breakfast, and Mitski, to name a few—in a wave of female songwriters writing powerfully and unflinchingly about sex. There are very few I-want-to-hold-your-hand moments on this record. Instead, when men and women come into contact, their interactions are usually either dangerous (“He followed me home again,” the first line of “Watering”), or ill-fated (“Seventeen you took his cum / and you gave birth to your first life,” from lead single “Mythological Beauty”). So it makes sense that the most redemptive song here is “Mary,” a stunning piano ballad about female friendship.
Admittedly, the songs on Capacity are heavy; but they’re also cathartic, heartfelt, densely layered, and down-to-earth—songs that you set aside, come back to later, and rediscover. In a recent interview with Stereogum, Lenker said: “The more questions I have the more clarity I have, in a way.” With each song, it seems that Lenker is at once questioning her lived experience, and the nature of guitar music itself. I hope she keeps asking.