“Tell me when we grow up do we ever go home,” Adrianne Lenker sings on the title track Big Thief‘s 2017 debut Masterpiece. “You said home becomes the highway.” On the titular second track of U.F.O.F. she intones, “like a seed in the wind, she’s taking up root in the sky.”
A sense of place has been a consistently important theme in the Brooklyn band’s output. On their third album, it becomes not just a tether, but a framework for the record’s oscillation between a sense of comfort and safety, and an atmosphere of transience and unease.
Opener ‘Contact’ drifts through nearly three minutes of gently swirling guitar notes before arriving at Cobain-esque screeches. It’s foreshadowed by the equally Cobain-esque line “Wrap me in silk, I want to drink your milk, you hold the key, you know I’m barely.” The imagery is telling. Both a sense of comfort and safety, of maternal and natural protection, and a sense of deep uneasiness, of something grotesque and surreal.
Throughout U.F.O.F. Lenker’s lyrics orbit motifs of return and abandonment, belonging and alienness, feeling welcomed and feeling rebuffed. Here, though, the sense of place is not simply a locational reference point. It’s a layered consideration of proximity and placement that worries over the transience of time, the ineffability of memories, and the lasting impact of the innocuous.
“Going back home to the great lakes, where the cattail sways, with the lonesome loon, riding that train in late June,” she sings evoking and an overwhelming sense of homecoming, of returning to a safe and familiar place. But the whole song drips with warm melancholia. It sketches out a place that stands still amid a world of change, but can also never really be revisited outside of memory.
The album’s most precious scenes, of homecoming and intimacy, are all offset by something unnerving or impermanent. Even when dealing with familiar settings everything feels subtly unsettled. The Bedroom tableau set out in ‘Jenni’ is made ominous by the escalating guitar noise. The sense of rescue and escape at the end of the title track’s chorus is disturbed by the song’s otherworldly allusions.
Memories of mundane places – the “white light from the living room leaking through the crack in the door” on ‘Open Desert’, the moths in the kitchen on ‘Century’ – offer a sense of safety in their familiarity but become daunting thanks to the gravity Linker’s and Big Thief’s songcraft invests in them.
U.F.O.F. aims not at the ambiguity of experience, but rather at its duplicity. These songs don’t capture how experiences are never one thing nor another, but rather how they are many things, earnestly, all at once and how places are irrevocably made what they are by what happens in them.
These songs are emotive, evocative vignette’s of lived experience made rosy by their apparent banality and made vast by their absurdity. And the earthy sense of sincere humility that goes into all of Big Thief’s work belies the enormity of U.F.O.F.’s content.