Big Thief's 'Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You' Is Their Grandest Masterpiece Yet

BY Kaelen BellPublished Feb 7, 2022

It feels like Big Thief were born with the keys to the castle gripped tightly in their fists. The band's imperial phase — that untouchable period where it seems impossible for an artist to make a wrong move, creating music that feels unreasonable, unattainable — started more or less when they did; their robes a rotating jamboree of hole-riddled overalls and repurposed fishing gear, furs and silks disguised as billowing T-shirts.

And now, as is customary of any good imperial phase (and sometimes a harbinger of its end), we get Big Thief's Big Album. The band's releases have previously come in loose pairs — 2017 breakthrough Capacity was recorded just seven months after 2016's Masterpiece, while 2019's one-two punch of sister records U.F.O.F. and Two Hands cemented the band as a messianic indie tentpole (a pattern furthered by vocalist Adrianne Lenker's twin 2020 albums, songs and instrumentals). Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You, then, feels a bit like Big Thief stitching a would-be pair of beasts into one two-headed calf — or, more accurately, a four-headed calf, the stars above the pasture quadrupled.

The record's 20 songs were captured at four different studios in four different states, each session buffing out a particular facet of the band's jagged little diamond. It's an intriguing premise and a smart way of circumventing Big Album fatigue. And besides, being a Big Thief fan has always meant being a fan of several imagined bands at once, their "best" version a constant debate. Do you prefer the quieter, gentler thief? The one that blows the windows out on "Not"? The slippery celestial invader? Do you miss when Lenker's writing felt more personal and small, or do you thrill when she pulls the universe in? Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You renders the discrepancies moot. It gathers those myriad faces around the same campfire, the flame a kaleidoscope of colour.

The record is immaculately sequenced, erupting and shrinking precisely when it should for the duration of its 81 minutes. Its spaghetti-at-the-wall approach never feels overwrought or precious, and the initial sonic whiplash of a sequence like "Change" to "Time Escaping" to "Spud Infinity" starts to feel as natural as high-summer weather — patient blues to sun showers, hollow winds to sickly green stormfronts, drunken smoky dusk to balmy black, all in the span of an afternoon. Much like Joanna Newsom's 2010 behemoth Have One On Me, part of the album's appeal lies in its success as a piece of architecture; an edifice at constant risk of collapsing under its own weight is rendered airborne by a careful and loving curatorial ear.

Drummer James Krivchenia's production — aided by contributions from Shawn Everett, Sam Evian, Sam Owens, Dom Monks and a handful of additional players — is as adaptable and dexterous as the music being played, dewy and spectral one moment and dry and stripped the next. Lenker, Krivchenia, bassist Max Oleartchik and guitarist Buck Meek (who gets his second Big Thief co-writing credit on "Certainty") sound like one spirit, more organism than band.

Crucially, the wildly disparate songs on Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You feel in conversation rather than competition, linked by the band's near-mythic symbiosis and Lenker's durable writing. Her songs are stretched, knotted and vaporized across the record, buried in instrumentation and effects on "Time Escaping" and "Flower of Blood" only to be dusted clean, naked as the day on the spellbinding "The Only Place" or "Promise Is a Pendulum." The band descend into murky trip-hop on the slithering "Blurred View" — Oleartchik's fretless bass warping the song's low-end like a torch to plastic — while "Wake Me Up to Drive" piles an erratic drum machine and silvery accordion into a piece of rickety, Lightning Dust-adjacent indie pop.
Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You also marks the official coming-out party for Big Thief the honky-tonk bar band, a new permutation of the group that offers, if you had to choose just one, the record's defining sound. Though they play only about one quarter of the material, the band's country-fried alter-ego is the album's north star; their shaggy songs, accented by Lenker's slightly exaggerated twang, are positioned as guide posts at the record's beginning, middle and end. That subtle structural detail allows the band to range about between the straw-bed rest stops, the barn door swinging open whenever it's time to mosey back home.

These country-indebted songs also make crucial grounding spots for Lenker's writing, their energetic, meat-and-potatoes performance bringing out a warm-hearted simplicity — save for the slapstick delirium of "Spud Infinity" — in her lyrics. As Big Thief have grown, so has Lenker's tendency toward abstraction and mysticism, the fantastical spiral of a song like Capacity's "Mary" becoming the norm rather than the outlier. And while it's a pleasure to hear a songwriter carve out the hieroglyphs of their own peculiar language, the shift from more obviously personal narratives sometimes creates a shade of distance, floating Lenker a few inches above the dirt where she once dug so fiercely.
However, even when she's chasing visions — "Once again, empty horses / Gallop through the violet door / Follow red, crooked courses / Shadows on the moonlit floor / Oh my stars, winged creatures / Gathering in silken height," she sings on the crystalline "Simulation Swarm" — there is an unshakeable sense of purpose, a steadfast belief that there's worth in attempting to communicate the incommunicable. How do you say something that's never been said before? You start from scratch. 

These subconscious dispatches are an integral part of the band's always-mutating DNA, but Lenker's most affecting songs are often those sung to a human (or even animal) rather than the cosmos. When she sings "I see you in the yard, drinking a beer / Leaving me undressed like some cheap classic movie / Maybe I'm a little obsessed / Maybe you do use me" on "Little Things," you'll swear you can feel a bruise blooming on your heart; the humiliation and small grace that comes of loving someone too plainly. And when she warbles, on the fingerpicked "The Only Place," "When all material scatters / And ashes amplify / The only place that matters / Is by your side," you'll be amazed no one had strung those words together so perfectly before.

That Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You's vast ecosystem can support this multitude of sounds and voices is astonishing. Even more so is the way its greens seem to become greener — its skies more full of stars, its waters clearer  — the more time you spend with it. It's a universe all its own, clarified a bit more with every listen. As Lenker sings on the title track, over a constellation of guitars and wind chimes, "it's a little bit magic."

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