On Oct. 11, indie outfit Big Thief released their second studio album of the year, “Two Hands,” which they described as the “earth twin” of their critically acclaimed, celestial album “U.F.O.F.”
In “Two Hands,” it is evident that Big Thief sets out to explore space and physical temporality. Led by guitarist and vocalist Adrianne Lenker, who notably grew up in an Indianapolis-based religious cult, the band is known for their folk-rooted, intimate noises that chronicle and storytell in the manner of Neil Young and Townes Van Zandt. But where their previous album of the year, “U.F.O.F.,” pointed toward a spaced-out, surreal understanding of folk, “Two Hands” searches for and practices a tangibility in sound.
How can the material be defined in music — is it an imaginary world that is created through the listener? Or is it simply a certain raw, subjective earnestness that fringes on a tangible experience? Depending on whether you believe materiality can function in a medium inherently immaterial, Big Thief still achieves a palpability through their record’s subtle lyrical and sonic emphasis on what is organic and experiential.
In “Two Hands,” all ten of the album song titles have something to do with physicality: from the absence of material in “Not” to explicit physical movement in “Rock and Sing.” The album tells stories and paints portraits of interactions, but it also transforms these images into moments that trace a divine sort of meaning behind everything.
Lenker, in “Rock and Sing,” meditates on an earthly activity: “I am that naked thing swimming in air / Why does that mean anything? / Why do you stare?” Her questions transcend her original expressions, giving the threadbare song a sense of spiritual freedom. Lenker later instructs her listeners, “Hand me that cable / Plug into anything” — perhaps, here, as Big Thief thumbs the line between tangible experiences and the intangibility of sound, meaning and sense, the band finds musical earnestness.
On Big Thief’s bandcamp, they describe the process behind “Two Hands” — a process which reflects the record’s organic and physical earthliness. “30 miles west of El Paso, surrounded by 3,000 acres of pecan orchards … Big Thief set up their instruments as close together as possible to capture their most important collection of songs yet,” the band wrote. “Where U.F.O.F. layered mysterious sounds and effects for levitation, ‘Two Hands’ grounds itself on dried-out, cracked desert dirt.”
Big Thief achieves a spiritual, primordial sound on “Two Hands” as a result of their live vocal takes and stripped-down instrumentation. In “Cut Your Hair,” listeners can witness the band’s interacting musical consciousness — bass responds to guitar, drum-beat waits for breath and moments start and peter out collectively. “Shoulders” transfigures moments of touching skin, witnessing blood and matricide into musical personalness and blurs the experiential with the unknown.
“Two Hands has the songs that I’m most proud of,” Lenker stated in their bandcamp exclusive. “I can imagine myself singing them when I’m old.” This reflection is emblematic of the album’s success in memorializing a ragged spirit. With episodes of the organic, of limbs, hair, mothers and places, Big Thief approaches what it means to understand the tangible in music — “Two Hands” muddles and mixes up what we, listeners, know and everything outside of that.