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The Beauty in the Sprawl of Big Thief’s New Double Album

‘Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You’ can be a lot to get a handle on, but it’s as rewarding as anything in the band’s deep oeuvre

Michael Buishas/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The problem with listening to albums by Big Thief is that at some point between the first and last tracks, there always comes a song so arresting that it forces you to stop. Much as you might want to follow instructions and dutifully stay seated with your ears inside the vehicle for the duration of the ride, there’s no choice but to back up, put the culprit on repeat, study the lyrics, marvel at a live version, and hopefully figure out how a song can simultaneously sound as if you were born knowing it and as if you’ve never heard anything like it before. The only way for me to push past “Paul” to reach the rest of Masterpiece, or to escape the pull of “Not” midway through Two Hands, is to listen to it too much. If I hammer it hard enough into my brain, I can gradually demagnetize it until the hold it has on me loosens. Only then can I accept, with some regret, that I still need other songs in my life, starting with the one waiting patiently on the playlist for me to overplay its predecessor.

You can imagine, then, the trouble with listening to the latest release by Big Thief, Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You, a double album so expansive that even its title sounds overstuffed. The first hurdle is that more than one of its 20 tracks fall into mandatory-repeat territory. The second hurdle is that it contains 20 tracks—only three of them longer than five minutes, granted, but only three of them shorter than three. The cumulative commitment amounts to 80 minutes, long enough that no matter when or where I try to carve out time to listen straight through, I’m inevitably interrupted somewhere on Side 4.

Thus, it’s taken me almost a month to achieve a few familiarity milestones: the point where I recall the names and sequencing of songs; the point where I can sort of sing and air drum along to intonation and instrumentation without necessarily knowing every word; and most important, the point where the opening seconds of the next song start to tickle my brain during the closing seconds of the current song, creating an itch that gets scratched in satisfying, reassuring fashion as soon as the new number starts. But the extra time it took to map the many musical avenues of Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You (not to mention memorize its name) was well worth it, because Big Thief’s biggest album also happens to be their most richly rewarding. It’s a sweeping, high-concept statement that sounds like an impromptu, private performance, and its range of instruments, musical styles, and production techniques suits its size, approximating the platonic ideal of a double album.

You never know where an inaugural double album will slot into an artist’s discography, if it ever arrives—sometimes it’s a debut album, sometimes a 10th. Regardless, it’s usually a sign of an artist who’s feeling themselves. You have to be deluded or firing on several cylinders to want to spread your wings wider than one record or compact disc allows. You also have to have the juice to sell a label (and an audience) on a plus-size musical marathon. Big Thief established itself as one of the most exciting and inventive acts in indie rock—and quite likely your favorite band’s favorite band, whether or not your favorite band is Big Thief—during a four-album run bookended by the aforementioned Masterpiece (2016) and Two Hands (2019). The group has both the chops and the stature to justify a really long play.

DNWMIBIY—actually, let’s leave it at Dragon—is Big Thief’s fifth album, and review aggregators show a steady climb in critical acclaim from Masterpiece to the most recent release. In that time, the group has gone from low-profile favorite of indie aficionados to headliner that sells out midsize venues and gets Grammy nominations, albeit without Grammy wins or close-to-top-line festival-poster placement. It’s less that the band got better over its first four albums than that the world caught on to how singular and self-possessed it was from the first song on. I’ve worn out Masterpiece and Two Hands more than the moodier, more experimental Capacity (2017) or U.F.O.F. (2019), but each album offers some of those songs that seem open-tuned to a special frequency that the FCC (or the RIAA) set aside solely for Big Thief. Each also expands the band’s sonic palette a bit beyond its antecedents, culminating in Dragon, an ambitious project that aims to document every facet of the band’s sound and songwriting. The message seems to be that a single album wouldn’t be big enough to contain these musicians’ multitudes, which might seem self-aggrandizing if it weren’t mostly true.

In 2019, Big Thief released two well-developed albums in a five-month span, 1960s-style; this time, they’re consolidating the rollout of roughly the same amount of music and saving themselves half the marketing materials. A three-year gap between Big Thief albums qualifies as lengthy, pandemic and all, but the band members have been busy. Songwriter, vocalist, and guitarist Adrianne Lenker released a double album of her own—or technically two albums, the fourth and fifth of her solo career—consisting of 11 acoustic songs and a duo of extended, instrumental soundscapes. Guitarist and backing vocalist Buck Meek, who toured on his own and in support of Jeff Tweedy in 2019 when he wasn’t booked with Big Thief, released a well-received solo album also (his second). Not to be outdone, drummer James Krivchenia (who produced Dragon, a first for the band) released his second solo album and announced his third.

Those side projects haven’t detracted from the group’s musical chemistry; if anything, Dragon seems to synthesize their evolving individual interests and strengths. That trio, combined with bassist Max Oleartchik and supplemented with more outside instrumental support than the band has previously sought, made a mashup of genres and eras that obeys the double-album imperative: to surprise and stimulate the listener all the way through.

Dragon is Big Thief’s Manassas, an elastic sprawl loosely sorted into four sections that highlight Lenker’s credentials as a compositional polyglot. The restless, shape-shifting music mirrors the purposely peripatetic recording process, which saw the band work with four engineers in four studios spanning three time zones, starting in upstate New York and shifting to Topanga, Telluride, and Tucson. The band’s itinerant, constantly questing spirit has become a core component of its origin story, mythos, and mission statement, along with Lenker’s similarly nomadic upbringing, her fated meeting with Meek on her first day in New York, and the group’s devotion to honest communication and emotional and musical authenticity. All of those elements are distilled into Dragon, whose stylistic twists and turns follow Lenker’s life advice in the opener’s first verse:

Change like the wind
Like the water, like skin
Change like the sky
Like the leaves, like a butterfly

Even more so than the band’s back catalog, the double album embodies what my former colleague Lindsay Zoladz described as Big Thief’s “conscious commitment to some kind of middle ground between intimacy and grandeur.” The album took five months to record and takes longer to listen to than Masterpiece and Two Hands played back-to-back, yet its cover art—the gateway to the tunes—looks like it was sketched in seconds. In the same vein, the elaborate, carefully planned project still sounds stripped down and semi–spur of the moment: About three-quarters of the tracks kick off or finish with a snatch of studio banter, a snippet of noodling from before the song “started,” a fragment from another song (à la U.F.O.F.’s “Jenni”), or an audible artifact of the recording device that captured it. And although there’s plenty of virtuosic playing, it sits alongside occasional, comfortable screwups. There’s the moment in “Time Escaping” when Lenker explains “It’s music!” to her dog, who had wandered into the vocal booth during what turned out to be the final take; there’s a midline laugh in “Sparrow,” and an early entrance and duplicated line in “Blurred View,” and imperfect fingerpicking in “Promise Is a Pendulum,” and maybe a misstated lyric in “Simulation Swarm.” The members of Big Thief will travel all over the country in pursuit of the right recording vibe, but once they tap into the True Source, they won’t sacrifice spontaneity in search of a pristine take.

Every band, Big Thief included, exists somewhere between Guided by Voices and Steely Dan on the spectrum of studio perfectionism. Someone decides to use this take instead of that take, or to start or stop the track a little early or late. There’s an intention to the preservation of Dragon’s sporadic flubs, but the impression they produce—of sitting in on a session and eavesdropping on the stumbles and serendipities of improvisational performance—is engrossing and indicative of Big Thief’s pleasingly unpolished approach. As Lenker sings on “Wake Me Up to Drive,” “We never plan ahead / We take the gamble on instead.”

Lead track “Change” was recorded during a run-through that preceded a never-needed first take, but Dragon’s DIY, do-it-live apotheosis is “Certainty,” the album’s most mesmerizing song, which was written and recorded in three takes on a jerry-rigged four-track tape recorder, all before breakfast. One of only a few Lenker-Meek cowrites released since their days as a duo before Big Thief, the song is so simple that anyone with a capo can play it—as one of the world’s worst guitarists, I know this to be true—yet so beguiling that it entrances songwriters who’ve been in bands for longer than Lenker has been alive. Two songs recorded in the Catskills, “Certainty” and “Sparrow”—a chant-like, chorus-less litany akin to “Cattails” from U.F.O.F.—are among the most naturalistic tracks, though they aren’t the only quiet ones; “Dried Roses” is a fetching, folky nursery rhyme, and “Promise Is a Pendulum” could pass for a Lenker solo song.

Other songs dabble in dream pop (“No Reason”), shoegaze (“Little Things” and “Flower of Blood”), or melancholy electronica (“Blurred View”); “Time Escaping” floats on a guitar-and-drums wall of sound that loops like an only slightly less synthy “Temporary Secretary,” while “Wake Me Up to Drive” has a hypnotic refrain overlaid on a drum machine. Indie-folk songs such as “12,000 Lines” and “The Only Place” wouldn’t sound discordant on earlier albums, but a smattering of countrified tracks distinguish Dragon from its forebears. Big Thief sounds more than a little bit country on The Band–crossed-with–Crazy Horse Americana numbers such as “Spud Infinity,” “Red Moon,” and finale “Blue Lightning.” Those mostly Mountain Time tracks feature a Hank Williams twang in Lenker’s often ethereal voice, an array of hoots and hollers and, on “Spud Infinity,” an honest-to-goodness, almost-trying-too-hard mouth harp played by Lenker’s brother, Noah. Low Anthem’s Mat Davidson, who had previously appeared on Capacity, plays a prominent role on the Tucson tracks, lending them not only backup vocals but also fiddle, pedal steel, and accordion, among other instruments. But the album’s best drop-in stems from a chance encounter with former Carole King woodwind specialist Richard Hardy, whose haunting, beautiful flute adds uplift to “No Reason.”

Dragon is sometimes silly and irreverent, as on most of “Spud Infinity” or in later lines like “I got the onions wishing they hadn’t made me cry” and “I wanna be the shoelace that you tie.” Other songs are plenty sad and serious; as Lenker asks in the last line of “Change,” “Would you smile forever, never cry?” The album boasts love songs, breakup songs, and odes to orgasms and infatuation, and its lyrics flit from ants underfoot to interstellar imagery that evokes the Big Bang, sometimes within the same song. But confronted with chaos and disorder, Lenker keeps circling back to a belief in human connection, which may be best summed up by the chorus of “The Only Place”: “When all material scatters and ashes amplify / The only place that matters is by your side.” No mood—meditative, somber, or absurd—lasts long before the next change in sonic or narrative tone: Between Disc 1 closer “Blurred View” and Disc 2 opener “Red Moon,” for instance, Dragon turns on a dime from downer to hoedown, following the unpredictable dictates of Lenker’s pen and paintbrush pick.

Dragon doesn’t do brief flights of fancy like “Wild Honey Pie” or “Why Don’t We Do it in the Road?”, and it has no Never Hear the End of It–esque song suites. Scant connective tissue directly links its disparate songs, though its less crisply, professionally produced works segue into others via the lo-fi tape hiss that’s accompanied some of Big Thief’s songs since the first track on their first album. But because the quality stays so high and the melodies never falter, it’s a treat to queue up 20 tracks and let Lenker lead. Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You is the best Big Thief album partly because it’s the one with the most music, and more of this band can’t be bad. But its breadth matters as much as its depth.

Lenker is one of those gifted and diligent songsmiths whom music spills from faster than release schedules can accommodate; few other artists could flex like Big Thief did by releasing eight singles from Dragon before the record came out. Dragon’s 20 tracks were culled from 45 completed songs, a quintuple album’s worth. As always with a double album, the question is whether it needed to take that form, or whether its running time is a product of padding or overindulgence. In one sense, a record’s quality could always be boosted by trimming the “worst” songs; even on Dragon, there isn’t a 20-way tie for best track. But it wouldn’t make sense to evaluate Big Thief’s latest like a hits collection compiled decades down the line. It’s the weird, worthwhile, and divergent detours that turn the best double albums into cohesive if heterogenous wholes. This is an album you can happily listen to as the day drains away, like Lindsay losing herself in American Beauty on Freaks and Geeks.

Many of the most memorable double albums in the history of rock have been closer to crowning achievements than signs of the start of sustained excellence. Whether because their comprehensiveness leaves little else to say or because their creation can be taxing, many post-double-album-bands are never quite as great or as together again. If that proved to be true of Big Thief, then Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You would be a perfect crescendo. But Lenker and Co. seem mindful of the need to live forever ’til they die and not to let time escape or content themselves with this potentially timeless album being Big Thief’s last or best word. A morsel of studio speech survives at the very end of the album: Something that sounds like “Gorgeous set!,” followed by “OK, what should we do now?” Knowing Big Thief, we won’t have to wait long for an answer that surpasses whatever we have in mind.