Photo Credit: Michael Buisha
It’s hard for the listener to know after only about a week which tracks will remain in your playlist rotation over time from an 80-minute, 20-track mega album such as this. Similarly, it can be hard for a songwriter to know the difference between a charming throwaway and a stunning little gem. Big Thief’s main songwriter and frontwoman Adrianne Lenker initially thought of “Spud Infinity” as a throwaway until she played it for drummer and producer James Krivchenia, who responded with tears in his eyes: “Adrianne, I’m crying!” Krivchenia exclaimed. “But I say ‘garlic bread’ in it. You can’t say ‘garlic bread’ in a song!” Lenker said. ”Well, it’s 2022 now and everything is possible,” they agreed. Especially when it’s compensated with excellent wordplay such as “When I say celestial // I mean extra-terrestrial.” Big Thief’s fifth studio album titled Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You – their equivalent to the Beatles eponymous “white album,” Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life, or the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St. – is filled with wonderful little gems like this, making these 80-minutes vanish with an incredible flow.
The journey takes off carefully with the acoustic, folksy “Change”, a perspicuous tale of life and death that’s almost a little too comforting. When “Time Escaping” opens with a chaotic mess of snapping so-called prepared acoustic guitars suggesting a far more avant-garde approach than we were led to believe by the opener, you’re wondering if you’re still listening to the same album. When Mat Davidson’s fiddle and Noah Lenker’s (Adrianne’s brother) jaw harp open on “Spud Infinity” in true bluegrass fashion, it’s obvious that this album is something else. Big Thief has never been afraid of exploring the boundaries of folk – and successfully so – but on Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You, they’re setting free every quarter note hidden within their endlessly creative collaborative mind.
We have already been teased with eight out of these twenty songs during the autumn and winter, starting with the loose complexity of ”Little Things” and the melodic folk of ”Sparrow”, a song about Adam and Eve. These two songs would eventually represent the finished product brilliantly: homegrown and rootsy by nature yet endlessly creative and forward-pushing through the folk terrain while avoiding repetition and instead constantly introducing new ideas and combinations of instruments. One of my personal favorites wonderfully highlights this aspect. About one hour into the album hides the galloping ”Wake Me Up to Drive”, where the use of a drum machine creates an intriguing pulse that pushes the melody forward. I can’t think of any other artist that would let an accordion and a drum machine work next to each other, and if someone told me about a band that did it, I would have a hard time imagining that they would manage to pull it off as fearlessly and smooth as Big Thief.
Though Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You was recorded in various locations, it’s hard not to draw comparisons to original folk-rockers the Band’s legendary 1968 debut Music from the Big Pink. Like their highly influential predecessors, who once started as Bob Dylan’s backing band, the members in Big Thief share a genuine excitement for living and playing music together that shines through in their art. No matter how far away they stray from their roots, this collective interplay and will to discover new grounds occupies their work and makes it sound coherent and cohesive. Many of these songs, such as the lovely country rocker ”Red Moon”, are recorded in one take in a tiny little room without any sound manipulations (the music video of ”Red Moon” can be enjoyed on YouTube and displays this), and on ”12,000 Lines”, the musicians’ wet swimsuits were still dripping on the studio floor when the music was taped.
In today’s music industry, where streaming dominates and concerts and festivals are both expensive and rare (due to the pandemic, of course) the gap between the average person and artists might seem enormous. On Dragon New Mountain I Believe in You, one can literally feel the flesh and blood of the band members. This sincere honesty is the reason why 80-minutes of Big Thief never drag, and that’s why one could drop the needle anywhere on this brilliant record and be equally impressed.