Big Thief’s ‘Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You’ is their most sprawling, many-sided LP yet
They don't make 'em like Big Thief anymore. In an age where so many indie rock bands are technically solo projects, and where trading files over the internet has often replaced working out ideas in the practice space, Big Thief entirely avoid both trends. It's tempting to see frontperson Adrianne Lenker as the band's leader, but she, guitarist Buck Meek, bassist Max Oleartchik, and drummer/producer James Krivchenia are a true democracy, and they've said in multiple interviews that they won't do anything unless all four of them agree on it. At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the four of them camped out in a house in the Vermont woods and just wrote as many songs as they could, collaborating on each other's ideas, letting themselves chase whatever musical impulse they had, and often recording while writing and keeping first takes to maintain a sense of spontaneity. "Music sounds better when people play it together," James Krivchenia told Sam Sodomsky in an interview with Pitchfork. "We could touch it up, but then you’d just sound like everyone else who knows how to touch their music up. It’s really easy to do that—which is why a lot of music sucks ass."
Big Thief's members are old souls, but their music never comes off like they're yearning for the "good old days," or even that they believe such a thing exists. They do often look to the past, but only in hopes of changing the future. Despite their music -- and values -- being at odds with so much of the modern, big-ticket indie rock world, Big Thief have found themselves at the forefront of it, a position that they do have mixed feelings about. "We’re part of the machine, and I haven’t figured it out yet, but I want to change things from the inside out," Adrianne told Jonathan Bernstein in an interview with Rolling Stone. "It’s a male-dominated, white-supremacist industry, and I’d like to carve out spaces where people aren’t being pigeonholed because of their gender, their color, their sexual orientation." Big Thief's music is as progressive as their worldview, and with their new 20-song double album Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You, they've written some of the most forward-thinking guitar/bass/drums-based music released this decade.
The album came out of those aforementioned Vermont cabin sessions, and they spent about a year completing it in four different studios across the country -- including spots in California, Colorado, Arizona, and upstate New York -- an opportunity that arose as a silver lining of the band's inability to tour during lockdown. And if 20 songs sounds like a lot, it's literally not even the half of it. "Each of us have, like, four songs that we were personally like, ‘I cannot believe that song got cut,'" James said in that Rolling Stone interview, after noting that the total number of songs written was closer to 50. (They've suggested that the other songs may appear on members' future solo albums and/or the next Big Thief project.) With the shortened attention span of our modern world, a 20-song double album seems like a lot to take in, but for Big Thief, it's really nothing out of the ordinary. The last time they released new music was 2019's double header of UFOF and Two Hands, which offered 22 songs in a span of five months, and since then, both Adrianne Lenker and Buck Meek released solo albums. As a collective, they're extremely prolific, and each new release feels like a step up from the last.
Whether or not Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You is Big Thief's best album yet -- and it very well may be -- it's certainly their most sprawling and ambitious. It's an album that casually and seamlessly moves between several different styles of music, equally warranting comparison to Crazy Horse and Radiohead. More than one person has already called it Big Thief's Tusk, a comparison that feels well-earned. Like that album, it's loose, multi-faceted, and full of musical risk-taking that always pays off. It's full of gorgeous songs that channel the type of indie folk that's most often associated with Big Thief ("Change," "Certainty," "Sparrow," "No Reason"), and there's so much beyond that going on too. It often goes off into experimental art rock territory, whether it's with the off-kilter percussion of "Time Escaping," the circular guitars of "Little Things," the rubbery (and also Tusk-like) guitar solo of "Simulation Swarm," or the more eerie and atmospheric songs like "Flower of Blood" and "Blurred View." The album's also home to Big Thief's most direct forays into country music, with songs like "Red Moon," "Blue Lightning," and with the fiddle parts on songs like "Spud Infinity" and "Dried Roses." Some songs could pass for Adrianne Lenker solo songs, like "Promise Is A Pendulum," which sounds like '60s Leonard Cohen by way of The Microphones, but one of the album's most arresting moments comes on "12000 Lines," when Adrianne and Buck harmonize, recalling the collaborative music they made together before Big Thief formed.
Dragon can find Big Thief at their most whimsical, like on "Spud Infinity," where Adrianne rhymes "finish" with "potato knish," and it can also find them at their most dead-serious, like on "Simulation Swarm," in which Adrianne cries "I'd fly to you tomorrow, I'm not fighting in this war," a line that stops me dead in my tracks every time. It's an album that's full of references to nature, which is fitting, given the location it was written, and it's also full of references to human connection and human touch. That's fitting too, because it really goes back to the thing that makes Big Thief stand out in the first place. Even before the pandemic, we were living in a world that was moving closer and closer towards isolation, where so much of our communication is virtual, rather than physical. "I wanna touch like we never could before," Adrianne sings on "Simulation Swarm." It's a line that carries more weight than ever.
The only side of Big Thief that this album doesn't show is the side of them that really rocks, like fan fave "Not" does, but it spends so much time exploring new ground that you're never left thinking about what it doesn't do. It's full of pleasant surprises at every turn, and it never drags or feels scattershot like double albums often do. It's the latest proof that Big Thief are a band who never look backwards and never repeat themselves, and that the most current version of Big Thief is always the most exciting version.
Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You is out now via 4AD. Pick up a vinyl copy and stream it below...