Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You (4AD/Remote Control)
BEFORE WE EVEN GET to the stories inside the albums, the stories artists tell us about their album – or more accurately, the stories their publicists tell writers/reviewers about their albums – colour so much of how we come to perceive and receive the music.
Recorded with this person, emerged from a period of grief after the loss of someone. done over this many months, guest contributions from such and such, and, in the case of Big Thief’s fifth album, made in four different studios with intentionally four discrete sounds and style to capture the multifaceted songwriting and thinking of Adrianne Lenker.
That four styles may be an undercounting for this 20-track collection – which on vinyl might well end up as a triple album: hello Sandinista! – but let’s say the versions are a kind of displaced folk, borderline home electronica, coiled rock and intense, insular indie: styles captured/mastered already by Lenker, Buck Meek, Max Oleartchik and James Krivchenia. The latter is the producer of this new album, replacing long-time collaborator Andrew Sarlo, itself another part of the pre-narrative.
The studios were in different corners of the country, from upstate New York to the mountains of Colorado, from the former hippie trail of Topanga Canyon to dry heat central of Tucson Arizona, all locations which we are to assume bring something more to the recording than just four more walls and a console inside another bland building.
Add to this the stories from people involved in the process about the band finding it hard to find a route in until a collective jump into a freezing creek before racing back to the studio, and guest artist Matt Davidson bonding with Meek over drywall installation and bike riding, and you’ve got a powerful band-curated image infiltrating your listening.
All of this offers a history, an explanation even, and enough of a story to fill many columns where the words sprawling and diverse, eclectic and eccentric are almost obligated to appear. And yet none of this can really explain just how engrossing, exciting and satisfying this record is.
Find yourself within the finger-picked folk of Promise Is A Pendulum, Lenker almost mumbling abstractedly in natural metaphors and human uncertainty, that speaks of love and absence with nothing but voice and guitar to guide you, and you can disappear into the weeds. Step back out of them into 12,000 Lines, bass and drums now bringing the texture of smalltown country bar, Lenker and a male voice in unison, and that absence now feels pointed (“Forgiveness, all the money in the world/Won’t buy it”) couched in hope (“Some nights barely breathing it all/Waiting for my woman to call”) but painted in only shades of grey (“Even the memory of your mouth/Tries to disappear”).
You can count Spud Infinity, where her keening mountain tones, fiddle and twanging jaw harp over rhythm shuffle suggest plain speaking, but the lines traverse the linear and the speculative until they turn fantastical.
“When I say heart I mean finish/The last one there is a potato kinish/Baking too long in the sun of Spud Infinity/When I say infinity I mean now/Kiss the one you are right now/\ Kiss your body up and down other than your elbows/Cause as for your elbows they’re on their own/Wandering like a rolling stone/Rubbing up against the edges of experience.”
And yet you always know where she and you stand in that song, just as you do in the circular, crosscutting patterns of reverberating guitars in Little Things, where agitation and desire wash against each other like waves and rock.
On the other hand, in the murkier realms of Flower Of Blood (with its chopped blend of low thumping drums and dour Englishmen in overcoats guitars that pour over but don’t submerge the vocals) and Love Love Love (guitars at angles, drums dragging and voice a step from the periphery), the sonic choices step up a challenge that frames the lyrics with questions playing against the apparent clarity.
It would be reasonable to think that if there is a weakness here it’s that there isn’t a centre, a quantifiable thematic core. When a record legitimately can be called sprawling in terms of sound, lyrics and style – did I mention it’s 81 minutes long, across 20 tracks? Did I also mention that I couldn’t think of which track I would leave out if I had to cut? – that’s pretty near impossible.
However, I don’t think that applies, and the clue may be in the seemingly ridiculous album title. Look past the arrangement of words and feel the sense of trust and adventure and belief and willingness to use anger just as much as you might use hope.
That’s the centre of Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You, and the songs radiate from there.