REVIEW: Big Thief - Masterpiece

Kelly Kirwan

Folk is imbued with a wry and rueful wisdom. It's weighted with history, one that usually involves a pattern of hurt and healing as cyclical as the changing seasons. Emotions laid bare, told with a sense of grit. Folk personified, for me, has always taken the shape of a sage, tucked away in the forest with an acoustic guitar and deep, soul-grazing stare. That is, until I listened to Brooklyn four-piece Big Thief, and suddenly that image was replaced with a more tangible one just a borough away. The band's latest album, Masterpiece, is a mingling of folk, rock 'n' roll, and a bit of the blues. Despite their urban home base, their body of work draws your mind to wooded expanses—a flit of lush landscapes and rolling hills, viewed from the driver’s side window. Big Thief has an air of wanderlust, not quite lost, not quite ready to settle down.

It's an idea not too far from the band's reality. They've clocked a fair number of hours in their affectionately-named van, Bonnie, and traveled deep into the woods of West Virginia to reach a gig (detours and mud-locked tires followed). Even Adrianne Lenker's vocals have a pixie-like quality, evocative of the folk prince himself, Bob Dylan. If we were to take a pencil and draw an outline of her pitch, we'd be left with a rough sketch of Appalachian peaks. Both are equally breathtaking.

Tracks like "Velvet Ring" take on a narrative quality, and in this case, it's a fractured love story. The song begins with a warm guitar riff that occasionally peters into a slow strum, as Lenker sings in a hushed and occasionally hurried tone. It's as if she's whispering in our ears, quick details of some strained past. Her lyrics are dark and poetically written, with lines like "The light would flicker like a violent wound / The night was thicker than a smokey fume / The lies awaited in the room" drawing us into the decaying pieces of these lovers’ world.

In fact, Lenker has an affinity for writing lyrics that are poignant even when they veer into cruder territory. Big Thief isn’t big frills, and Masterpiece proves they don’t need them. Their album plays like a series of memories, each layer of their tracks a picture in a scrapbook. Which was actually the band’s driving ethos, with "Masterpiece" referring to the fabric of human existence, "...people attempting to connect, to both shake themselves awake and to shake off the numbness of certain points in their life."

Big Thief attacks the peaks and pits of our lives from every angle. There’s no room to fall into apathy when their sound is this beguiling. Lenker’s lilt comes to life with Buck Meek’s guitar, Max Oleartchik on bass, and Jason Burger handling the drums. Set to release Masterpiece on Saddle Creek, these four quench any sort of thirst for the good old days. They bring the objects of our nostalgia into the present, even if they only last a song.