Album Review: “Two Hands” is Big Thief’s testament to the elemental force of the human spirit
Music and Society Editor
The stressors of the music industry in the age of streaming and overnight stardom place great pressure on popular musicians to churn out content rapidly to keep up. Even independent artists suffer from this effect, feeling the need to produce quickly to remain relevant. Some groups, like King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, accepted this prospect as a creative challenge, releasing five albums in 2017 alone.
More often than not, however, increased output means declining quality, as has been the case with garage rocker Ty Segall over the years. In extremely rare instances, bands can cause lightning to strike twice while working overtime. The last true example of this was in 2015 with Beach House’s incredible run of “Depression Cherry” and “Thank Your Lucky Stars.”
Big Thief did the seemingly impossible in 2019 by releasing a similarly stunning duo of albums with “UFOF” in May and “Two Hands” in October. The albums are personified by the band as “the Celestial Twin” and “the Earth Twin” respectively, emphasizing their duality. “UFOF” was recorded in a cabin in the rainy Pacific Northwest while “Two Hands” was recorded on a pecan ranch in the arid Southwest.
“Two Hands” channels the heat and expansive landscape, elevating the band’s sound to an elemental force, fully defining each member. The band becomes grounded in earthen reality, recognizing its scope and weaving narratives rank with imagery to chronicle and grapple with lived experience. Adrianne Lenker’s high pitched warble on lead vocals is a shattered life force, a rallying cry that is one part broken, one part ferocious.
The title track, “Two Hands,” embodies this sonic revelation. Lenker’s performance sounds like an incantation as it sustains and shatters with passion. Scenes of intimate deterioration are etched with heart-wrenching imagery: “stone faced in the light/ the air and the jagged bite / cold air, the wisdom of the night / between us.”
Squelching synths, arpeggiated guitar and xylophone layer the rising tension leading to emotional climax.
“Not” is a tour de force and the defining work of the band thus far. It is a sensory electric odyssey that shows Big Thief at their rawest and most daring. The overdriven guitars pulse through the song as the lyrics capture the listener in a repetitive trance chronicling existential collapse. As the song progresses, the volume and intensity increase in animalistic desperation, exploding into an interlocking guitar solo of cataclysmic proportions. The solo scrambles for footing, clawing for stability in its dissonance and sustained distortion. Deconstruction occurs as the drums, bass and guitars assert brutal force to overtake one another, colliding with grandiosity.
Overdriven guitars and massive crescendos are present on “Shoulders” and “The Toy” as well which contain allusions to violence, desolation, lost dreams and environmental despair in their nearly abstract, poetic lyrics. The push and pull of catastrophe and resilience course throughout the album sonically and lyrically, ruminating on thankfulness amidst harsh odds steeped in exterior chaos.
Directly following “Not” is “Wolf,” an ethereal, acoustic purge like a soft dew or oncoming fog after the previous hellfire. The song recognizes the poignant brightness of affection and morning, revelling in their fragile worth and longing for their preservation. The song speaks to the quiet resilience of life, especially in its closing lyrics: “Finally laying on the ground / Open hands empty / I’ll return back again / If she’ll let me.”
Big Thief offers further encouragement through solidarity with their profession of instability in the wake of losing a lover in “Rock and Sing” and acknowledgement of communal pain in “Forgotten Eyes.” Validation is extended in “Forgotten Eyes” in its interlocked acoustic and electric guitar harmonies, representing and realizing the beauty of synergistic cooperation. Lenker cradles us all in singing, “Everybody needs a home and deserves protection” in the refrain.
“Two Hands” is the album for this moment in time, reconciling the sacred and profane with the sublime and mundane. Big Thief embraces and feeds off of happened and impending catastrophe, be it environmental, emotional or romantic, juxtaposing it with the humble recognition that the human spirit is not easily defeated: one can fight to survive or survive to fight.