Album Review: Big Thief - 'Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You'

Amongst clashes in their personal lives, folky American rock band Big Thief strive on, returning in 2022 with their longest album to date. The Mic's Ewan Samms review's the New York 4-Piece's 5th full length project, 'Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You'.

‘Dragon in the new warm mountain, didn’t you believe in me.’ Adrianne Lenker planted the seed of Big Thief’s joyous opus in her stunning 2020 solo endeavour, Songs; a magically sprawling exploration of grief, divorce and self-love. With the cancellation of Big Thief’s 2020 tour and the divorce of founding members Lenker and Buck Meek, Songs invites the listener into Lenker’s emptiness, to sit and make oneself comfortable with loss as she did, spending four months in a cabin recording the works to tape. It’s this crucial context that makes Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You (DNWMIBIY) such a joyful triumph.

"The album flies no flags, makes no proclamations and pushes no agenda."

As bountiful and ambitious as the 20-track album is, one need look no further than the hand drawn doodle on the cover to understand it’s sentiment. Four whimsical creatures in smudged pencil sit around the fire with their instruments, a self-portrait of the band in Lenker’s image. The album was recorded in four main sessions, as the band penned 45 songs post 2020, handpicking 20 of these to make up DNWMIBIY. The album flies no flags, makes no proclamations and pushes no agenda. Gliding across genre and tonal palette, with the hay-chewing country Jam ‘Spud Infinity’ straddled by the downtempo ‘Change’ and the dreamlike haze of the title track, the listener is invited to observe the overflowing love of the project, as a chosen family of rockers celebrate their survival.

DNWMIBIY’s potentially scattered soundworlds are united by an essential aspect of Big Thief’s sound: Adrianne Lenker. Every song on the album was written by the frontwoman, with her trademark weaving of vivid nature, relationships and life’s big questions united by the remaining members of the band. Producer James Krivchena, who dabbles in his own experimental projects, as well as penning percussion for every Big Thief record thus far, allowed Lenker to focus on the core of each track on the album, leaving a tracklist built upon impenetrable lyricism peppered with ear candy.

For this 20 track exploration to be in any way compelling, the order of events is a crucial consideration. Compared to the band’s previous successes, DNWMIBIY presented a new challenge. How does one package almost two dozen songs without any grand overarching concept or traditional structure. The album flow is seamless and impeccable, jumping from downtempo reflections to folky fun and experimental detours. I noticed this upon unboxing my vinyl copy as each side of the discs contained 5 varied tracks. Side B could have easily contained all the folky bangers, whilst side D trailed off into Lenker-esque musings, but instead the constant variation in style keeps the listener stimulated. Big Thief somehow manage to infatuate for 80 minutes without putting down a guitar.

‘Change, like the wind, like water, like spring’: a mission statement for the album’s opening. The track shares its sonic palette with other downtempo tracks on the album; take the dense drums of ‘Certainty’, the hypnotic hook of ‘Sparrow’, or the gorgeous warmth of ’12,000 Lines’.

Album highlight and single ‘Simulation Swarm’ acts as a presentation of Big Thief’s winning formula. Before I heard the studio version, I had the opportunity to see Lenker perform an acoustic version of the track, where its arrangement was evident. A typically tricky-sounding fingerpicked guitar part acts as the foundation, with Adrianne’s croon conjuring images of mystically subversive nature; ‘magnet sun… empty horses… winged creatures gathering in silken height,’ and so on. A drum kit played with the softness of a tiptoe brightens up the tune, with Krivchena’s nuanced recording highlighted again here. The track's low end works to highlight the guitar part, whilst a secondary bass part slinks and slides across decorations, added to by plonky guitar harmonics and distortions. The unorthodox guitar solo was a part I assumed to be coined by one of the dedicated instrumentalists of the group, but Lenker managed to perform the solo flawlessly live, complete with harmonic taps, spritely rhythms and continued chords, despite playing on a single acoustic guitar. Simulation Swarm is an Adriane Lenker song at heart, but is elevated to a new form by Big Thief.

Much of the album’s joy lives in it’s fun folky numbers. Spud Infinity’s timeless country ensemble manages to sound infectious and modern, whilst the laughable chemistry of Red Moon is unavoidable, exemplified by the music video sharing the live take used on the album. Love, Love, Love sees a Lenker drunk with longing, throwing caution to the wind and shrieking the title, with the Album closer Blue Lightning acting as a footnote of fun, bringing together the defining features of DNWMIBIY.

"Big Thief sound as if they don’t play to any particular audience, instead enjoying the beauty of music in a private space and revelling in the shared experience."

Though implemented with an originality, one could argue the approaches on these previous tracks are somewhat derivative of the band’s previous work, or American guitar music in general. This concern is quashed by experiments and detours on the album. Heavy Bend sounds like the band dipping their toe into the world of lo-fi, with Blurred View taking this further into a place of melancholic soundings. Wake Me Up To Drive retorts the listener from any sense of sadness, as a cute-as-a-button vocal performance proclaims excitement for a cross-country drive, as the entire tracks sounds as if it was run through the soundsystem of a Jeep. These interjections break up potential familiarities between the track, lending a freshness to each instrumental change.

DNWMIBIY’s sense of fun seeps into the more produced tracks on the album, often disembodied from the rock band image present throughout. Take the huge, floating sound of Little Things, the echoed vocals and euphoric climax of Time Escaping or the comedically perfect singalong of No Reason. These tracks are unmistakably big thief in their similarities, but act as one point of the axis on which the band turn.

Combine these with the comparatively intimate acoustic tracks played solely by Lenker and the full range of the band is exposed. Adrian ponders her mortal power on Promise is a Pendulum, comparing this to the grandiose promise of love: ‘I could never build the ether or the grass overgrown… I could never make a freckle or the warm breath you sigh.’ The Only Place is a euphoric proclamation of love in itself, but given the context of lenker’s album Songs, it becomes an episode of hope and rebirth, showing she is capable of love again: ‘If all material scatters and ash is amplified, the only place that matters is by your side.’ By stripping the band away, one can appreciate the way in which the members of Big Thief elevate each other, and the joy this brings.

Having analysed the track-list in search of a deeper concept or overarching meaning to Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You, I find comfort in the fact that I couldn’t find one. The album is deeply joyous and fun, intimate in a way that the listener is welcomed into what sounds like a safe space, with no expectation of understanding or analysis, instead invited to sit back and enjoy the music. Despite the live recording of the album, Big Thief sound as if they don’t play to any particular audience, instead enjoying the beauty of music in a private space and revelling in the shared experience. I find myself returning to the cover art, the childlike comfort and timeless image of friends round the fire singing a tune. The title track summarises Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You perfectly: ‘it’s a little bit magic.’

Ewan Samms


Edited by: Elliot Fox

In article images courtesy of Big Thief via Facebook. Video courtesy of big thief via YouTube.