What’s left when the world’s ending? Love is, Adrianne Lenker and co assure us on their unbounded new double album. On closer “Blue Lightning”, the alarm bells begin to ring: “This morning, I went to have a bath, the water ran dry / Clear warning, has it come at last, the time to say goodbye”. On the preceding “The Only Place”, she has just one wish – to stare down the apocalypse with a lover (“When all material scatters / And ashes amplify / The only place that matters / Is by your side”).
On Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You – Big Thief’s unwieldy fifth studio album, with a fittingly unwieldy title – no topic and no sound is off bounds. Utilizing everything from synths and bass to a Jew’s Harps and [checks notes] icicles, Dragon tells of natural beauties, road trips, funerals and more. Underpinning it all however is a belief in giving into a higher power – be that God, be that a partner, be that the natural world or the future that you will go on to create yourself. These are songs that don’t just find hope in the unknown, but beauty and even divinity. On highlight “Certainty”, Lenker professes “I love you, still don’t know” – the latter half of that revelation not dimming the beauty and opportunity of it’s first half.
“Spud Infinity” – a country-cosplay number – meanwhile finds Lenker not scared of mortality, but empowered by it; finding urgency in our finite time on earth. She combines her trademark incisiveness with offbeat humor for a surprisingly effective call to action (“Kiss your body up and down, other than your elbows / ‘Cause as for your elbows, they’re on their own”).
Dragon is an album of heightened emotions and extreme stakes – our narrator moves back and forth from the edge of the world to the precipice of love. Yet, it’s also an album about finding beauty in the everyday – a cross-country road trip, making dinner for the extended family. What underpins both the album’s high-stakes and tranquil moments is the fantastic lyricism of Adrienne Lenker: “For you, I am a child, believing” she sings on “Certainty”, finding childlike innocence in new love. On “Promise is A Pendulum”, she sings achingly of beauties that transcend man’s creation capacity (“I could never build a rainbow or any kind of flower”, “I could never build the shadow between your cheek and your eye”).
Up to this point, all of Big Thief’s albums have clocked in around the 40-minute mark – which now seems comparatively economic compared to the sprawling Dragon; which lasts double that time. Dragon’s length presents a challenge to listeners previously unacquainted with the band. Despite Big Thief’s admirable attempts to diversify their sound, the songs of Dragon inevitably blur into an amiable fog at some point.
Six of the album’s eight pre-release singles – which are some of Dragon’s best tracks – are placed within the album’s first half. It’s a smart move, placing the album’s most captivating tunes at its start, but it makes for a difficult act to follow up. And, while sides C and D of Dragon are similarly impeccable, it’s easy to lose sight of this given the album’s sheer size. When released as a single, “No Reason” stood out as an instant highlight in the Big Thief catalog; a song about funerals and memories and navigating loss that found Lenker in a disarmingly uncharacteristic state of nihilism (“There’s no reason to believe / No reason at all”). Yet, it’s easy for the subtle beauty of “No Reason” to pass you by amidst the fifty minutes of music that precedes it, and the nearly half-an-hour that follows it.
It’s this, then, that makes Dragon Big Thief’s most challenging album. For an LP filled with such soothing sounds, it’s a surprisingly tough nut to crack. It’s best moments come when the urgency of the band’s words are met with a similarly urgent change in tempo (see: the fantastic “Simulation Swarm”). But if Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You is a challenging album, it’s a challenge worth taking on. The album’s sheer density means things are bound to pass you by on first listen that you may only first notice on a fourth, fifth listen. Give it time, and you’ll find that new nuggets of gold unfold from Dragon with each successive listen.
Best Tracks: “Change”, “Time Escaping”, “Certainty”, “Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You”, “Sparrow”, “Little Things”, “No Reason”, “Wake Me Up To Drive”, “Simulation Swarm”, “Love Love Love”, “12000 Lines”