Big Thief add beauty to injury on Masterpiece

Masterpiece"Real love," Adrianne Lenker declares about 10 minutes into Big Thief's debut, "is a heart attack." Hers is a lexicon of split lips, blackened lungs, all the interstitial cracks that provide rough outlines for a human body, the scribbles of a deity bent on gallows humour. Like so many of their Saddle Creek forebears, Big Thief can't help but stare at your wounds; not because they're sadists, but because they've noticed something incredible in the way you choose to cauterise them. It's a shared experience, and one that Masterpiece documents with stirring emotional fortitude.

If there's a collaborative ethos hardwired into the band's output, it seems to have extended to the recording process. In our recent interview with the former solo act, Lenker spoke about the combined influences of the band, and the joy of uniting them under one roof: "It’s not just you. You also have something to listen to that you’re not creating. That's something I've always enjoyed." The result is impressively cohesive. Following the lo-fi balladry of "Little Arrow", the album feels like it's hit its stride with the title track, a heady mix of punch-drunk guitar riffs and desperate pleas for change ("This place smells like piss and beer. Can you get me out?").

Over the course of the album, those louder elements serve only to accentuate what turns out to be a disarmingly tender affair, put together with at least as much blues as bluster. "Lorraine" is beautifully corrupt, intertwining descriptions of "two lovers forming from friction" with a handful of softly-spoke declarations: "There I let you take me under the table..." The emotional context is ambiguous, but like any writer with lascivious leanings, it's the author's ability to blend love and obscenity that stands as the highest mark of their quality. Lenker's got it in spades, dropping truth bombs that leave pretty patterns in the sand ("I realised there was no one who could kiss away my shit"), all backed up by a band who know precisely when to deploy an ear-splitting guitar shriek to maximum effect.

What brings Masterpiece's elbow-nudge title into a more literal realm is the sheer balance of everything summoned here. To me, that's not about constant equilibrium; it's about waiting until the whole thing feels like it could keel over, then pulling it back from the edge, just in time. It's the high, keening note Lenker hits just before the chorus of "Parallels" that brings the song's anxious edges into brief resolution. Nothing gets smoothed over, you understand. Sometimes you just need to let those wounds breathe a little.

Release: 27th May 2016, Saddle Creek


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