In 2019, Big Thief solidified their place as reigning legends of emotionally fragile folk-rock, purveyors of music that could just as easily soundtrack a séance as a midday coffee shop. They had been making records for only three years, but that year Big Thief operated with the poise and audacity of a far more established band: releasing two stellar albums mere months apart, saying things like one album is the “earth twin” of the other, singing tributes to the homeless and voiceless with Bono-level earnestness, overwhelming a CBS This Morning studio audience with the lacerating guitar heroics of Two Hands standout track “Not.”
The band’s tour that year felt like a coronation. Audiences greeted songs that had existed in the world for mere months as though they were age-old classics. When I saw the group at Webster Hall that October, what I most remember is thinking about what a rare joy it is to see a great band performing at the absolute peak of their powers.
And what great bands often do when they realize they’re at the peak of their powers is make a double album. The first year of the pandemic allowed Big Thief the time and space to indulge this hubristic tradition. Faced with their longest break from touring since 2016’s Masterpiece came out, they wrote at a feverish pace and spent five months recording in four distinct sessions—in upstate New York, in California, in the Rocky Mountains, and in Tucson—with four different engineers. By the last session, they had generated some 45 completed songs.
The result is Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You, a freewheeling creature that vibrates with the restlessness and ramshackle intimacy that have long distinguished this band, blown out to a new scale. It is an uncommonly warm and generous record, 20 songs in all—flitting from campfire folk (“Change”) to clanging cosmic rumination (“Time Escaping”) to countrified hoedown (“Spud Infinity”) in its first three tracks alone—and it solidifies Adrianne Lenker’s place as one of the greatest songwriters to emerge in the last five years.
Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You is not really an indie-rock album, at least not in the way that Two Hands was. There is no successor to “Not” here, nothing that belongs on a mid-2010s indie mood board. Instead, it revels in the earthy, joyously uncool tones of a ’70s hippie-folk record excavated from a garage sale. It is Big Thief’s loosest album and most ambitious album all at once.
There is a jubilance to these performances, even a joyousness. A wailing fiddle, played by guest member Mat Davidson (aka Twain), loosens up the country stomp of “Red Moon” and the gorgeous, blue-eyed harmonies of “Dried Roses.” “Spud Infinity” is the most striking departure, an unabashedly goofy singalong, with lyrics about elbows and potato knishes that Lenker nearly rejected for their uncharacteristic irreverence, and the most conspicuous use of a Jew’s harp since Leonard Cohen jauntily deployed one in the middle of a song about 9/11. It is the kind of song that defies the band’s downbeat reputation, that stares at you with a wild glint, daring you to resist its giddy revelry.
The playfulness of these performances juxtaposes with the increasing abstraction of Lenker’s lyrics. Lenker is the kind of songwriter who exudes earnest curiosity about nature, who muses in interviews about the utter strangeness of being an organism hurling through space. She fills her songs with impressionistic images—a silver-tongued dragon (the title track), yellow stars glowing through white trees (“Blurred View”). Yet this time she also allows herself to indulge a wide-eyed simplicity. “In ‘Change,’ I felt it was just straight-up my seven-year-old self writing it,” Lenker recently told Pitchfork. The song is open-hearted and unpretentious, with spare reflections on butterflies and mortality (“Death / Like a door / To a place / We’ve never been before”) set to ambling major chords.
If there is a thread running through the songwriting, it’s a yearning for transcendence, for connection. “What it’s gonna take / To free the celestial body?” Lenker repeats in “Spud Infinity,” instilling each syllable with its own weight and energy. On “12,000 Lines,” she sings about crisscrossing the world, pining for a lover, and places a queer spin on a forlorn country melody. “Blurred View” is all gnarled beats and distressed metaphors (Linker imagines herself as a waterfall filling her lover’s eyes, a moon burning for them), while “Love Love Love” is an extraordinary tangle of bluesy desperation. “Release my love! / My love!” Lenker howls at the song’s climax, while Buck Meek plays guitar like Doug Martsch delivering a solo from the bottom of a river.
Like many double albums, the indulgence and excess is part of the joy here. Of course this thing is a little too long, too unwieldy. But the album’s adventurous spirit feels intertwined with that unwieldiness. There are songs I didn’t connect with until my fourth or fifth listen, and others I haven’t connected with at all. But even when it comes to songs that strike me as weaker moments—like “Heavy Bend,” which flirts with electro-pop, but feels perfunctory and slight, or the schmaltzy “No Reason,” which brings out the band’s medieval side with an honest-to-God flute solo—it’s not hard to imagine another listener treasuring them as favorites.
Part of what makes Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You so special is that it captures a sense of spontaneity, of raw collective energy, that’s been in short supply since the pandemic began. Several songs open with snippets of studio chatter. Moments of unexpected joy abound—Lenker shouting out “That’s my grandma!” in the middle of “Red Moon,” the sound of icicles being shattered at the end of the lush, featherweight title track.
Would it surprise you to learn that several tracks, including the woozily brilliant entropy of “Little Things,” were recorded almost immediately after Lenker finished writing them, lest inspiration fade? Or that the “No Reason” flute solo was performed by a pony-tailed flutist named Richard Hardy, whom the band encountered entirely by chance after hearing his flute solos emanating from a tower near their studio in the Rockies? (Let M. Night Shyamalan write that screenplay.)
Such moments can’t be replicated through Zoom squares or remote sessions. Even when Big Thief deploy a skittering drum machine for the first time—as they do on the bleary-eyed travelogue “Wake Me Up to Drive”—the result sounds misty and warm. Instead of going the obvious route and fleshing out the song with icy synth tones, they used an accordion, like the true weirdos they are.
In classic-rock mythology, a double album often signifies the moment when a great band begins splintering apart, every member veering off in their own stylistic direction. The White Album is the archetypal example of this tradition; its forebears include Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk, which can feel like three solo albums mashed together, and Outkast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, which became the embodiment of André and Big Boi’s creative divorce.
Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You exists in stark opposition to this tradition. Maybe it’s because three of Big Thief’s members already released solo records in 2020, but this record sounds like four musicians coming together, telepathically attuned to each other’s ideas, reveling in the strange mystery that unfolds when they play together under the same roof—a fragile sanctuary from the collapsing world outside.
Nowhere is this sentiment more apparent than on the album’s final song, “Blue Lightning.” It’s a rootsy, rollicking love song from Lenker to her bandmates. “I wanna be the vapor gets you high,” she sings joyously as a chintzy synth fanfare joins in the final chorus. When the song ends, you can hear the palpable excitement in the studio. “OK!” someone exclaims, and then: “What should we do now?”
Zach Schonfeld is a freelance writer and journalist based in New York. He contributes regularly to Paste, Pitchfork, Vulture and other publications. Previously, he was a senior writer for Newsweek. His first book was published in November 2020.