Big Thief’s third studio album, U.F.O.F., has the band dealing in the dark arts, leveraging lead singer Adrianne Lenker’s enthralling voice, gorgeous finger-picked guitar, and a host of moody arrangements to produce an incredible, brooding folk album. The continued maturation of the band’s sound has culminated in one of the best albums of the year to date.
“Contact”, the opening track on the album, begins innocently enough, as a quick drum lick rolls into a jangly acoustic affair. However, just as the listener has been lulled in by the tight rhythm of the music, the song snaps, introducing a sinister electric guitar and blood-curdling shrieks that encapsulate the madness bubbling underneath Lenker’s restrained vocals. These moments throughout the album a kind of haunting, witch-like atmosphere that would make Stevie Nicks proud.
While the bands direction has certainly led to a tighter unit and higher quality of songs overall, U.F.O.F. is missing some of the grit of the band’s first album, heard in songs such as “Real Love” and “Masterpiece”. “Contact” does this perfectly, as the band allows the song to run haywire for the last 45 second. We see hints of it again, as Lenker digs into the raspy parts of her voice on songs like “From” and “Terminal Paradise”, relinquishing control just for a moment. “Jenni”, the penultimate song, and the absolute gem of the album, perfectly combining ghostly overtones, brooding synths, and deeply disconcerting guitars. These little touches add vital textures, and a few more interspersed throughout the album would have made for welcome additions.
“Open Desert” and “Orange”, the fifth and sixth songs on the album, offer a fascinating study in the effect that production can have on the “space” that a song takes up. “Open Desert” does exactly what it says on the tin; between doubling Lenker’s vocal, the reverb used on both on her voice and the instrumentals, and use of synths that sound as though they are fading into the open air, the song is able to achieve a mass amount of sonic space. “Orange”, on the other hand, has a much more intimate sound. Immediately, one can hear the sound of the room, as Lenker’s voice and the accompanying acoustic guitar are muted by the space around them. There is clear intention behind the placement of these songs that pays of as the two play off of and enhance the effect of one another. This level on though process serves to underline the band’s continued evolution and growth.
Lenker’s lyrics throughout the album are deeply personal, and as a result can be hard to parse. Oblique references to people and (often traumatic) experiences are difficult to piece together, but Lenker offers just enough detail for her vocal performance to do the heavy lifting. Armed with perhaps the most gut-wrenching vocals in indie music today, Lenker is able to convey the brutal nature of these experiences with utter mastery. The listener may not know exactly what is happening in the narrative Lenker is weaving, but he or she knows exactly how they are meant to feel about it.
U.F.O.F. is an absolutely stunning listen, and a clear early favorite for album of the year. It has been a joy to observe the progression of the group from a rough, muddier sound playing among the “smell of piss and beer”, to the gorgeously (witch)crafted, effortlessly rambling folk outfit they have become.