Big Thief Finds Magic at Every Turn on ‘Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You’: Album Review

If the ethereal folk of “U.F.O.F.” and earthy indie-rock of “Two Hands” indicated each end of the band's sonic spectrum, “Dragon” posits an entirely new axis.

big thief album review
Courtesy 4AD

“It’s a little bit magic,” Adrianne Lenker chirrs on the title track of Big Thief’s new album, “Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You.” Then, over a weeping pedal steel and her own signature “brush guitar,” her curiosity drifts from a river of morning geese to the birth of a billion planets to a dragon in the phone line. It’s never revealed what, exactly, “it” is, but throughout this adventurous new double-album, Big Thief dives into both the natural and otherworldly, paving new sounds and textures while uncovering new mysteries.

Produced by drummer James Krivchenia, “Dragon” was recorded over four sessions with four different engineers in four distinct locations: upstate New York, Topanga Canyon, the Rocky Mountains and Tucson, Ariz. With an emphasis on freedom and exploration, the band wandered into some of its most brilliant recordings rather fortuitously. For example, in the Rockies, after the band first practiced “Change” and readied up for Take 1, engineer Dom Monks said he’d already taped the rehearsal, and it was perfect as is. Over in the New York woods, Big Thief faced a lightning storm that wiped out the studio’s electricity for several days, but as Lenker and guitarist Buck Meek finished writing “Certainty,” they refused to let a power outage stop them from putting it to tape. So the band recorded the song live and acoustic on a 4-track cassette recorder powered via minivan, with Max Oleartchik’s bass running through a Bluetooth speaker.

The spirit of experimentation doesn’t stop there. With every leap into uncharted territory, Lenker and company stick the landing. If the ethereal folk of “U.F.O.F.” and earthy indie-rock of “Two Hands” indicated each end of Big Thief’s sonic spectrum, “Dragon” posits an entirely new axis. The band opts for spooky lo-fi production on “Blurred View,” sticks a flute solo in “No Reason” and rewires synth and acoustic guitar to craft the percussive alchemy of “Time Escaping.” Of course, the band’s signature indie-folk is present on the album, with “12,000 Lines” and “The Only Place” showcasing Lenker’s ability to create beauty in simplicity.

What’s most stark about “Dragon,” though, is Big Thief’s full-fledged foray into country. The band could fill a barn dance with the fiddle-based “Spud Infinity” — complete with Lenker’s brother Noah on the jaw harp — but the pivot is better executed with a lighter touch, on songs like the blazing “Red Moon” and downtempo “Dried Roses.” On album highlight “Certainty,” Lenker and Meek harmonize, tacking twang onto each syllable: “My certainty is wild, weaving / For you I am a child, believing.”

Throughout the album, Lenker grasps at Big Questions with openhearted curiosity. She sings of “accepting the alien you’ve rejected in your own heart” on “Spud Infinity,” while on “Simulation Swarm,” she wonders if she can “renew” a relationship with her biological brother Andy, whom she says she’s never met. On “Change,” the album’s transcendent opener, Lenker compares death to “a door to a place we’ve never seen before.” Some lyrics evoke meaning through metaphor (“Wake me up to drive / Even if I’m tired I don’t wanna miss the ride”), while others are nakedly profound, like the album’s parting words: “I wanna live forever ‘til I die.” Despite Big Thief’s air of seriousness, “Dragon” sees the band at its loosest, with plenty of fun moments and Easter eggs sprinkled across its 20 tracks. There are callbacks to previous songs and albums, references to potato knishes and garlic bread, and even an enthusiastic shoutout to Lenker’s grandma. Within the same song, Lenker sings of shoelaces and mountaintops with equal importance, scraping at the idea that all things — magnificent and minute, cosmic and casual — are connected.

The high-water mark of the album, and perhaps the band’s greatest sonic achievement to date, is “Little Things.” Soaked in fuzz and swirling guitars, heavy breathing and shrieking, it showcases the band at its best and most urgent. The song’s center of gravity: a jangly, hypnotic guitar progression that serves as a whirlpool for Lenker’s delicate voice to swim in and out of. “Maybe I’m a little obsessed / Maybe you do use me,” she sings as snare hits and echoing backup vocals whoosh by. Meanwhile, Meek is in another stratosphere, his frenetic notes of distortion like needles against Lenker’s fluttering coo. Indeed, the magic of “Little Things” is how Lenker and Meek seem to at once complement and clash with each other, conjuring feelings of love, loss and longing in the process. While it clocks in at just under six minutes, the song carries a sense of infinity, revealing the thrilling unboundedness of Big Thief’s sonic canvas. At one point, it sounds as if the song is stalling, suspended in air, but suddenly the guitars rev up again and Krivchenia saddles in, knocking everything back into the band’s beautiful, chaotic orbit.