‘Everyone needs a home and deserves protection,’ sings Adrianne Lenker, vocalist and chief songwriter with the Brooklyn based roots collaborative Big Thief. Two Hands sits as a companion piece to this year’s earlier release U.F.O.F. However, where the former explores the expanse and wonder of space, this collection has been distilled into the very essence of the dirt beneath your feet, where home and mother earth are very much at the centre.
To help realise that sense of emotional grounding, the process of recording has been stripped back to the bare bones, captured practically live in El Paso’s desert studio Sonic Ranch. As a result, the album has a closeness and warmth that radiates inwards and allows us to experience real proximity to the work as if looking through a macro lens. From the delicate beginnings of Rock And Sing to the dark frontier drama of Cut My Hair we are grasped by the familiar but firm grip of needing to first belong in order to truly understand.
Recent single Forgotten Eyes is the perfect exponent of that live feel, straight ahead and raw, yet it is on the title track where we see the whole picture. The percussion shakes and fizzes into flame with Lenker’s voice quivering like birdsong atop guitarist Buck Meek’s crystalline picking and scalpel sharp string bends. Indeed, it’s worth noting that all but two of the tracks on here feature entirely live vocal takes, which sounds like she’s right there, singing at your elbow.
When things are at their most stripped back, as in the punchy, brooding rock of Shoulders, you get a clear insight into the process the band have gone through when approaching this project. Although Big Thief are broadly peripatetic as a group, the familial feel on the record is keenly perceived and adds a weight and an authenticity to their music which lifts everything well above the standard.
The real strength of the album lies in matching such an intimate approach to songwriting and recording with a quietly furious questioning of where our collective responsibilities lie politically and globally. There is an incendiary depth to the lyrical content on album standout Not – ‘Not winning / Not the planet / Not spinning’ – with an escalating rage that growls in the throat, every syllable spat into the corners. When set side by side with the plucked sunset of the gorgeous vulpine love story Wolf, there is genuine prowling strength that emerges from just beyond the horizon, Lenker’s strangled howl spiralling skywards on the back of stunning acoustic guitar.
Later on, Replaced kicks through the desert scrub, shuffled and steady, evoking a moonlit walk in the brush amongst Meek’s cascading tremolo, the feeling of wide open space and endless terrain. Indeed, many of the tracks on here paint themselves filmically, conjuring up scenes of watching the band play through the frosted windows of a glowing cabin; you can almost smell the wood smoke as the music soaks into fabric of the room.
Two Hands is the moment where Big Thief make their most personal but powerful statement of intent. An album that attempts to understand the forces within us and around us and the need to ground ourselves before we take on the much larger challenges which lie ahead. It’s a significant message.