Earlier this year, Big Thief transported us to the lush mountain greenery of rural Washington. Manifesting among such a vital tapestry, their mystifying record “U.F.O.F.” beckoned us to look up at the stars and find peace suspended in the wonder of nature’s unanswerable questions. Five days after recording their third album, the indie darlings travelled to arid Tornillo, Texas to record “Two Hands,” a starkly contrasting companion piece that, much like its album cover, leaves no distance between singer and guitarist Adrianne Lenker, guitarist Buck Meek, bassist Max Oleartchik, drummer James Krivchenia and their audience.
Lenker’s whispering croon has always felt affectingly close, like discovering something for the first time that has always been with you, even a part of you. On “U.F.O.F.,” however, Big Thief infused their familiar intimacy with haunting production to create the ideal atmosphere for, according to Lenker, “making friends with the unknown,” recognizing that “the nature of life is change and impermanence,” and being “uncomfortably awake in that truth.”
“Two Hands” is stripped of nature’s mysteries. It’s just Adrianne, Buck, Max and James and the dry earth beneath their feet. The record is virtually a first take, raw performances tackling grounded themes of homelessness, gun violence and more plainly the human body. Listening to this album is like sitting in on the studio sessions, and we have direct access to every facet of these songs.
Some of the tracks thrash with a fire never before seen from Big Thief, while others exude a gorgeous and devastating tenderness, and “Two Hands” is at its best when it displays either of these extremes. The melancholy yet lively title track is a highlight, with chiming arpeggios and Lenker’s crooning falsetto lamenting that a fraying relationship can not be fixed by repeatedly trying to answer the same questions.
Lead single “Not” builds with furious passion as Lenker strains to rattle off striking images of hunger, thirst, fire and blood before a shredding and chaotic guitar solo. “Wolf” follows, providing a beautifully intimate comedown with a finger-picked lead guitar and Lenker’s crystalline vocals. This is Big Thief at their best.
For each enlivening moment, Big Thief spends just as much time somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. This, unfortunately, is where “Two Hands” falls flat. With the production tricks and haunted mood of “U.F.O.F.” gone, downtempo lullabies like “Rock and Sing” and “Those Girls” are hardly captivating. Big Thief’s fourth record spends at least half its runtime in this nearly forgettable space. “The Toy” is the exception, with its somber chord progression and Lenker’s exhausted poetry on gun violence (“Children burn, faceless vapor, ‘cause the toy in my hand is real”) playing off each other masterfully.
As Lenker sings the refrain of “Wolf,” she takes an audible breath and comes in a moment late to add one final “ooh.” It’s in the raw imperfection of such poignant moments that “Two Hands” distances itself from “U.F.O.F.” and finds its character. Despite its clunkers, “Two Hands” often soars and shines in its magical ability to transport us to the earthy desert where Big Thief has never felt more singular.