Does finding out that something is more or less entirely true make it all the more painful? Truth is something that is often at the center of songwriting: there are countless, brilliant songs that work as exposure, they tell a truth that is difficult to say plainly. When something really devastating and heartbreaking happens it can be hard to admit that you’re suffering; great songwriting can ease that pain. Big Thief’s sophomore album Capacity is a record that treats vulnerability as a constant: these songs are delicate and poetic; they also hurt so very badly.
Around the time of the album’s release a month ago, the band’s frontwoman Adrianne Lenker mentioned that the songs on Capacity are entirely true, that she doesn’t know how to weave fiction into her songwriting just yet. So how does truth manifest itself on this album? Capacity is an album that closes loops: between mother and daughter, between lovers (regardless of gender), and between the desire to fly and the action of flying—among other things. It’s also an album that broadly deals explicitly with trauma, this is an album about being hurt, be that physically in the hands of death or in the hands of a loved one. Capacity is as sweet as it is macabre. Death and experiences with death are everywhere.
In the album opener, “Pretty Things,” the band brings in tender, finger picked guitar and Lenker’s vocals, solo. “Pretty Things” is misleading at first, when Lenker brings in a stark image of a man “thrusting and moaning” early in the song it feels like we are in that space of trauma. But then things change, the guitar sweetens and Lenker details having lips like sugar, she sees “a woman,” within this man, the song never stops being uncomfortable and painful but it begins to feel tender, setting the mood for the rest of the album, which makes sense: Big Thief as a project is about pain and tenderness. In the album’s title track, the band brings in reverberant, Americana tinged guitar work and tremendous crashing drums. The song describes movement; more specifically flight (flight is a beautiful word/fluttered with consonance/that’s what I’ll follow forever). Lenker wants to fly as she tries to piece together an understanding of her past, this is also a song about family and being grounded by seeing family. In the album’s closer “Black Diamonds,” we are in moment Lenker wakes up from what feels like a fever dream, she sings with short breaths and mentions cold sweat. She stares at the ceiling and thinks about what this person she loves is doing to her brain. She wonders whether or not this relationship will end a mystery in her life, she wonders if the intimacy she is experiencing is even worth it. There is “Great White Shark,” another track that is centered on country/Americana style guitar, as well cryptic lyrics. We see pieces of people in this song: a pair of lips, a daughter. We are also in nature: we see an ocean filled with sharks and owl in the forest. Lenker’s use of nature is another major anchoring point for this record. Being outside and concentrated on the little intricacies of nature can help make the world less terrifying and huge.
The earth is a big scary place, but Big Thief manages to tame a sliver in it. Recalling sounds both old and new, Capacity is all pain and beauty. This album is stargazing music, as it is music you listen to in that moment where you feel truly alone. It’s post summer thunderstorm music. It’s music you listen to as you realize a good thing is actually a bad thing. It carries you into a space that is purely intimate, it’s just you, Lenker’s breathy yet honey rich vocals and several different styles of guitar. These songs are earnest in a way that can only be expressed by someone who has seen some shit that hurts to talk about.