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Album Review: Big Thief “Capacity”

Big Thief’s Masterpiece was unquestionably my favorite album of 2016. It gave me something I felt like I’d been missing for so long from the music scene (and sparked a simultaneous renaissance and return to form from one of my favorite labels, Saddle Creek) – finally here was an album woven not just of sounds, but of stories, one that felt intimate and visceral, that made me nostalgic for something I couldn’t even quite articulate, but something that left me aching and wistful all the same. The best way I could describe it is that it was music to listen to on late summer nights in your dark bedroom, with the windows open.

Despite loving this album so much — or maybe because of it, Capacity the band’s second album, almost seemed to come too soon; I wish Masterpiece had been allowed to linger just a little longer. Singles “Mythological Beauty” and “Shark Smile” form the heart of the album – everything else seems to branch off the strength of the two tracks.

There are two definitions of Capacity — the lesser-used one has to do with the power to experience or understand something. This is frontwoman’s Adrianne Lenker’s greatest strength, her ability to understand and experience other lives. This is best exhibited on “Mythological Beauty,” a haunting account of a pivotal event of her childhood (when a railroad spike fell on her head, cracking her skull and nearly killing her), reimagined through her mother’s perspective. “There is a child inside you who’s trying to raise a child in me” Lenker sings, with remarkable empathy and compassion.

“Shark Smile” stands out in particular as perhaps the strongest track Big Thief has released to date. It captures the feeling of driving too fast down dark country roads, the danger dispelled by the solace of the night air and the starry skies. It builds and builds until it seems to spiral into a cascading, tragic end, but just when you think it’s over, its steady, quiet chorus kicks in again to keep it afloat for a few more perfect seconds.

“Watering” strikes that same dark tone, rich and deep. This is where the band excels, these tragic songs that simmer and burn. “Watering” features a killer bass line, and a vaguely 90s alt-rock sound- there are split seconds that wouldn’t sound out of place on “Siamese Dream” or a Mazzy Star song. It mixes surprisingly well with Big Thief usual folk-rock leanings, and I would love them to experiment more with this in the future.

Then “Coma” whispers in like a story you aren’t supposed to hear, a campfire song played past your bedroom. This is another side to Big Thief I love, these sparse, dainty little songs with dark undertones. The biggest departure in sound however happens in “Mary,” a lush piano ballad that flows like water, delicate and ethereal. It treads a careful line of being a bit too precious for the rough and tumble Big Thief, but again, I love the expanse, and the attempt.

The rest of the album seems to drift by, without leaving too much of a mark. I’m still not sure if I see Capacity as a stand alone, or rather, just as a continuation of Masterpiece. It’s kind of like the doomed love affairs the band so often sings about — sometimes you need a new way to hurt in order to feel anything at all. It’s clear that Big Thief has more than enough stories to tell, but I’d love for them to continue to re-imagine how they’re going to tell them.

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