Aeva Milos | February 24, 2022
A friend and I once questioned what makes an album a road-trip album—after all, isn’t anything you play in the car decidedly road-trip? Somehow, this strange and arbitrary category, the road-trip, comes to signify more than just driving down the highway. It recalls the Californian lilt of Joni Mitchell or the dusty drawl of Bob Dylan, embracing a timelessness, a liminal heat, a desolation, and a longing for something close, something living.
Big Thief’s new album, Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You, is a 20-track record that surveys love and landscape in its most primal, most road-trip form. They explore this feeling through a playful descent into country and bluegrass influences.
For a band that was only formed in 2015, Big Thief carries a meticulous precision to their musicality. They appear to share a devout kinship, knowing one another intimately—not just as bandmates, but as close friends and ex-lovers (Buck Meek and Adrianne Lenker were married before they divorced.) Their proximity allows their bridges and cadences to meld together smoothly and audaciously. This is performed most ardently in ‘No Reason’, a song that calls for a sort of togetherness and kindred connection through the chorus of voices that join Lenker.
In the opening track, ‘Change’, Lenker sings: Change, like the wind, like the water, like skin. Examining the end of a relationship, it is also a signal of the band’s evolution within their music. The indie-rock presentation of their debut album Masterpiece has been replaced by fiddles and banjos—it feels serenely natural and unsurprising. As the jaw’s harp croaks in ‘Spud Infinity’ with the sense of a child hopping around from foot to foot, Big Thief caresses both a mature wiseness and a youthful sense of exploration.They grow older, but they just stop themselves short from growing old.
After four successful albums in almost ten years, their ability to still bring something new and profound to their discography is no small feat. Drummist James Krivchenia told Genius that to create a duller effect on the guitars in ‘Time Escaping’, the band placed business cards between the strings. Looking at the credits of the record will even reveal the band listing icicles as an instrument. Their craftsmanship is bold, and yet they navigate this new sound with a sense of ease and nuance. At the very end of the record, a voice pipes up and says: “Okay! What should we do now?”. Their simple desire for creation, to invite the listener into their music-making space, allows the record to hum with a special kind of potency.
Just as the band explores the external world—the breathing, animate, cataclysmic earth—so too do they turn their attention to the internal—to domesticity, to homebodies and the simple things. In ‘Red Moon’, Lenker’s lyricism pays homage to the smaller rarities of living: I got the oven on, I got the onions wishing / They hadn’t made me cry. Her warble is punctuated by a wolfish yip at the end of her verses, almost as if the band themselves are metamorphosing into something other than human, something strangely and magically unearthly.
Here, the record swells, as if it’s alive itself, like a warm animal body in the snow. The title track, ‘Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You’ opens with pearlescent flutes, mimicking a glittering refraction on a waterfall. Accompanied by Lenker’s sweet vocals, it is in this song that something truly transcendental envelops the record.
However, it’s the cryptic name of the album that draws the most curiosity. It evades total capture and resolute meaning whilst simultaneously demanding attention. The phrase “Dragon New Warm Mountain” is a revised version of a line from Lenker’s song ‘anything’ off her solo 2020 record. Though the phrase itself hardly forms an identifiable sentence, the words all pulse with the essence of something living, like scattered synonyms to describe a lover. Lenker then follows up this line in ‘anything’ by asking: “Did you believe in me?”. The new album answers this question through the second part of its name: I Believe In You. This rings devoutly: I Believe In You. I do, I do, I do. Through this call-and-response effect, Lenker’s solo work and her role in Big Thief become united to ultimately celebrate the fundamental nature of connection and collaboration—an overarching theme of the album. As the band responds to the solitary Lenker by saying “I Believe In You”, their validation overrides any of her own personal doubts, conveying the force of the intimate friendship the band has with one another.
There’s a risk with all albums, especially of this length, that the sounds and tinctures will begin coalescing into one. For a moment, Big Thief wobbles on this precipice. Then suddenly, like a smug wink to listeners, a trip-hop infusion opens their song ‘Heavy Blend’. Their acoustic, folk-country set transforms into a hybrid, all-consuming creation—devoid of categorisation. ‘Blurred View’ pulsates with electronic dissonance. In ‘Love Love Love’, the band embraces a brooding tone, as if they are playing at a smoky dive bar. Meek’s guitar scratches and reverberates during the bridge, while Lenker adopts an almost-wail as she sings.
Big Thief refuses definition. They appear to straddle convention while freewheeling through contemporary textures. It is a fascinating fusion of genres, expressing complex musical registers and modernising past influences.
Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You is an evocative and endearing album from a band who stretches and folds their music with subliminal grace. The record is perfect for careening down the highway, while it also magically captures the infinitesimal, spirituous moments of living; dancing arm-in-arm with friends, sharing a smoke at the back of the speakeasy. Skinny-dipping in river water with three-day morning shadow and chipped fingernails. Holding a stranger in the middle of the night, wishing you were holding someone else. Big Thief clutch onto little pockets of life within their music. Like nomads, they travel from place to place, living within one pocket before moving onto the next. Road-tripping with no certain destination in mind, just wherever the land and the music happens to take them.
Listen to Big Thief’s Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You below.
Image Credit: Alexia Viscius