After Big Thief’s bumper dual-album 2019, frontperson Adrianne Lenker returns on October 23rd with two new lockdown solo albums, songs and instrumentals, both recorded in a cabin in the mountains of Western Massachusetts. An acoustic folk album infused with the sound of rainstorms and birdsong, songs is both a return to Lenker’s deepest roots and an evolution of her ever-changing sound, whilst instrumentals serves as an enjoyable addendum to this strong collection of tightly produced fingerstyle tracks.
These new releases are defined by two powerful qualities; their warmth, and their simplicity. Full of heartsick love songs and imbued with a deep sense of catharsis, songs stands in stark contrasts to Lenker’s gloomier 2018 offering abysskiss. Gone are the greyscale laments to old scars that can’t be healed; in songs, pain is intertwined with love and the dark with glorious colour. ‘Light blue // dark blue // crimson trail’, sings Lenker on opening track “two reverse”, lapping up nature’s rainbow, blazing through deep woods and dark places to the tune of a warm fingerstyle thrum, one that is sustained throughout the album.
A master of songwriting, Lenker has dialled back from the experimental nature of her previous album to a more reigned-in folk sound, constructing seemingly simple compositions that bely a great deal of fingerpicking skill. This allows her lyricism, the beating heart of these lovelorn poems, to shine through. In songs, every element is infused with the mountains of Massachusetts; “ingydar” speaks of ‘marigold terrain’, ‘raven paying hide and seek’, ‘drying blueberries… the juice of dark cherries’. All is a banquet, all is a woodland scene, and Lenker dials further into the folk genre than she ever has before, capitalising stylistically to great effect.
As universal as these tracks can feel, they are at once intensely personal. Previously released single “anything” is a true love song, a rare treat from an artist who so often remains hidden behind weaving metaphors and lyrical riddles. A heartfelt ballad of wide-open spaces, ‘circle of pine and red oak, circle of moss and fire smoke’, and almost painful intimacy, ‘I wanna sleep in your car while you’re driving // lay in your lap when I’m crying’, this is a song that bares all in an effort to be truly honest.
No prose is wasted here, and Lenker’s sentimentality is genuine enough as to never become cloying. “forwards, beckon, rebound”, “heavy focus”, and “half return” form a strong central core to the LP, variegating Lenker’s lyrical focus ever further. At times images of horrifying dreamscapes emerge from the fog, at others faded photographs of nostalgic childhood, and at others further still come glimpses of fleeting passions, still burning. Lenker laps and re-laps herself, singing nursery-rhyme style tales of times gone by, before leaping into the dark of the woods again, ‘candescent insects // crosses and fishnecks’, filling the album with animals, plants, soft skin and slide guitar, rough fingers and strange dreams.
Perhaps the most striking use of natural sound appears in “come”, a song undeniably about grief, the sound of rainfall drumming down on Lenker’s cabin as she takes on the role of a mother saying goodbye to her child. Singing in bass tones reminiscent of abysskiss’ gloomy dirges, Lenker draws the listener in close, once again offering up something deeply personal in the pursuit of a universal feeling. And still, despite all of the pain that has been poured into her music, there is always a sense of catharsis; ‘I’m not cold, I’m not cold’, speaks the mother in, ‘take my hand, take ahold’.
Rounding out the album, “zombie girl” and “not a lot” return to talk of love and struggle, the tricky tracks of relationships ongoing. These songs perhaps suffer for coming later in the tracklisting; “zombie girl” is musically there, but its lyrics feel somewhat out of place, taking on a grungier tone than the rest of the album so far. “not a lot” meanwhile, feels almost too similar in its composition to some of the earlier tracks. Despite this, both are still strong songs in their own right, though perhaps would have been served better on a different release.
Concluding tracks “dragon Eyes” and “my angel” provide an ending of two halves. In “dragon eyes” Lenker reduces all of her hopes and fears to one simple wish, one familiar to so many in recent months; “I just want a place with you // I just want a place”. Then comes the long goodbye; “my angel” blending guardian angels with the angel of death. This melancholic farewell combines the naïve kindness of Hours Were the Birds with the dim-dark peace of abysskiss, leading into a heady conclusion that suddenly cuts short, the tape all run out.
What Lenker has done with songs is remarkable. She has managed to pare down her sound to something striking and elemental, honing in on a warm folk style that comes to define her best album yet. There are echoes of Big Thief’s early tracks here, and Lenker’s solo efforts too, whilst her later experimental explorations are constrained by songs’ stricter boundaries, to great effect.
Whilst perhaps only for hardcore fans or those more interested in instrumental folk, instrumentals is an enjoyable listen post-songs. A two-track special, “music for indigo” is a long fingerstyle piece of slow builds and joyful flourishes, the sounds of Lenker’s laughter sometimes audible over the recording, whilst “mostly chimes” is something of a meditative experience, constructed around nature sounds and tinkling chimes, the ringing of the bells receding until only birdsong remains.
Above all, songs and instrumentals are defined by their warmth, simplicity, and sense of healing, filled with scattered poetry and glimpses of a life well-lived. In offering up this rare gift during such hard times as these, Lenker has chosen hope over despair - and this hope is something that all of us can be glad to share in.
songs and instrumentals releasing October 23rd via 4AD