Albums of 2019 (#7): Big Thief – U.F.O.F.
U.F.O.F. shows Big Thief's ability as creators of different moods and atmospheres – it's a truly special album
When compiling our end of year list for 2019, we faced a dilemma when it came to Big Thief: U.F.O.F. or Two Hands? Unsurprisingly (spoiler alert), both records have made our top ten, but choosing between them, for many of us, was nigh on impossible. New York indie-folk quartet Big Thief had been earmarked for legendary status based on their first two records, Masterpiece (2016) and Capacity (2017), existing as distinctly impressive albums. However, at the close of the decade, Big Thief made the case for being one of the most crucial bands of the last five years, and for this year at least, the most crucial.
The release of U.F.O.F. in early May had already established Big Thief's credentials as a masterfully powerful band, able to surprise, entertain and shake all at once. The announcement of October's Two Hands later in the summer only confirmed the group's claim to the throne. In 2019, Big Thief released two of the most thrilling albums of the year, and what's more, they managed to give them distinctly singular auras as separate releases, yet also spiritually linked the two as a loose double album. In my deliberations, being forced to choose between these two equally brilliant records, I ended up putting U.F.O.F. first merely because it came out earlier in the year. However, there is barely anything else that separates them in terms of quality.
U.F.O.F. is the dreamier, airy and intricate sister to Two Hands' earthier, more direct slap to the face. The only major difference between them is that Two Hands possesses the best song of the year in Not; however, U.F.O.F. is more evenly balanced, more diverse, without such a heavyweight track grounding it.
U.F.O.F. is bookended by two of the heaviest tracks in Big Thief's back catalogue in Contact and Jenni. One would be forgiven for mistaking these tracks for a sludgy post-hardcore band along the lines of Lungfish, such is the weight they carry. Lead singer-songwriter Adrianne Lenker is urgent and banshee-like in the album's opener, whereas when the quartet return to the well towards the end of the record, she mimics a whispering ghost. Of course, Jenni isn't the final track on U.F.O.F., that distinction falls to Magic Dealer. However, the way that track sifts through the wreckage of the previous song, finding breathtaking beauty in the chaos, the two are intrinsically linked.
At the heart of the matter, U.F.O.F. is Lenker's arrival into the top tier of currently active songwriters. She'd already threatened as much with her underrated solo album from last year (abysskiss), yet here, she repurposes two of those solo tracks (From, Terminal Paradise) into wonderful full band explorations. Initial reactions to these reworked songs worried some spectators that Big Thief had solely become Lenker's project as opposed to the tight unit they'd previously presented.
However, there is a cogent reason as to why the artwork for U.F.O.F. and Two Hands feature all four members of Big Thief in the albums' respective recording locations. They're a family. Yes, these are Lenker's songs, but she cannot bring them to such vital vibrancy without Buck Meek (guitar), Max Oleartchik (bass) and James Krivchenia (drums) behind her – one only has to witness them perform live to see that. Earlier this year, Big Thief played London's beautiful Roundhouse theatre, their biggest show to date, and managed to make the 1,700 capacity room feel intimate performing whimsically delicate tracks such as Cattails and Orange in a tight, almost ritualistic, semicircle.
Elsewhere, U.F.O.F. shows Big Thief's ability as creators of different moods and atmospheres. There's the devastatingly beautiful Open Desert; the jazzy, laid-back-yet-underlined-with-tension Century; or the jarringly upbeat Strange which dissolves into a conclusion fitting to the song's title before Lenker changes her voice completely on Betsy, proving the band's elasticity. Then, of course, there's the title track and lead single of this truly special album, in which Lenker makes friends with an alien and relates it to the connectivity of entire solar systems. It ranks as one of Lenker's finest tracks to date, constantly moving downstream until the drums trip up over the end of the chorus, reminding us of our fallacy as humans.
Ultimately, favouring one of Big Thief's 2019 releases over the other purely comes down to which version of Big Thief you prefer. U.F.O.F. is linked closer to Capacity whereas Two Hands sits closer to Masterpiece. Even more impressively, however, is that all four records are of impeccable quality and have an individual feel to them. Big Thief seemingly exist in a bygone era of the 60s and 70s where rock bands consistently produced incredible music album-to-album, year-to-year which seems at odds with whenever Lenker mentions anything vaguely "modern" in her lyrics. With that in mind, we should be extremely grateful for their presence on our astral plane, because who knows how long they'll be around before they go off with their Unidentified Flying Object Friends.
U.F.O.F. was released on 3 May via 4AD
Big Thief play Old Fruitmarket, Glasgow, 2 Mar