For an artist who has been releasing records at a steady chop since 2014 – four Big Thief albums, including two in 2019, plus a couple of solo LPs – there’s always been something elusive about the band’s songwriter, Adrianne Lenker. Emotionally and texturally, her music has the appearance of intimacy but she somehow remains at a distance, populating her songs with a cast of characters and setting them to spider-silk melodies that threaten to float away on the wind if you relax concentration for a second. Songs and Instrumentals, written and recorded in a one-room mountain cabin in Massachusetts after a heartbreak, marks a shift from that. Playing alone and unadorned, every song is written from the first person, creating Lenker’s most unguarded album yet.
She was meant to spend 2020 touring with Big Thief, but Covid sent her into isolation. She had songs she intended to record, but instead ended up writing a bunch of new ones that reflected her vulnerable emotional state, emerging with two records, Songs and Instrumentals, now being released as a double album. Recorded on eight-track tape using only acoustic guitar and vocals, Lenker conjured layers of rippling melodies, coloured by sounds taken from the surrounding woodland, like rain and birdsong. On “Forwards Beckon Rebound”, there are wooden creaks that could come from her guitar, the trees or the cabin itself.
Lenker wanted to showcase the sound of the acoustic guitar – Instrumentals does precisely this – but her lyrics and voice remain major draws. Strong images abound – “his eyes are blueberries, video screens, Minneapolis schemes and the dried flowers from books half-read” goes one line from “Ingydar”, while “Two Reverse” gives us “grandmother, juniper, tell to me your recipe”, meaningful only to her but beautiful in their rhythmic play. Like David Berman, she’s a dab hand at the opening line. “Staring down the barrel of the hot sun/Shining with the sheen of a shotgun” she sings on the superb stream-of-consciousness love song “Anything”, while the lullaby “Heavy Focus” starts with the near-perfect couplet “Cemetery at night/And the dog’s in heat”.
Abysskiss, Lenker’s 2018 solo album, was bookended by tracks about her own death. Songs maintains this theme, ending with a visit from a guardian angel (“My Angel”) who “kisses my eyelids and my wrists”, while in between comes murder and several woundings. She is tender but never sentimental: “Everything eats and is eaten”, goes the refrain from “Ingydar”. Even love songs are clouded in violence. “Anything” features family fights and dog bites. On the gentle sing-song “Not A Lot, Just Forever” there is a mouth stained with poison and intense declamations of romance that come bearing knives.
These are in keeping with Lenker’s gift for the creepy. “Half Return” features a narrator returning to childhood homes, perhaps in a dream – “Standing in the yard, dressed like a kid/The house is white and the lawn is dead” she sings against a rippling melody. The scratchy, sinister “Come” starts with the line “come, help me die, my daughter” and continues in the same American Gothic spirit, emphasising a Gillian Welch-like knack for tapping into an older sensibility.
Her songs, like dreams, veer in and out of lucidity. Some start with fractured images before slowly evolving into more recognisable narratives. Others start with solid scenes and then dissolve into random words and sentences. On the slow reverie “Dragon Eyes”, she starts off “freezing at the edge of the bed, chewing a cigarette” before telling us that “dragons have silent eyes, cracked eggshells, fireflies”. Melodies are similarly hard to pin down. The one time she lays down a hummable tune is the peppy “Zombie Girl”, one of two pre-break-up songs that features another narrative about dreams and absence.
Recordings are lo-fi but could have been more so. Lenker tried recording directly to a Sony Walkman, but ultimately procured an eight-track that allowed for overdubs. All the same, it is rudimentary and in keeping with life in the cabin, where there was no electricity or running water and Lenker cooked by woodstove and bathed in the river. Songs are coloured by birdsong and the sound of falling rain. Most musicians would use these sounds to ground the music in a sense of naturalism, but with Lenker it enhances the mystery. The accompanying Instrumentals consists of two sprawling pieces, one per side. “Music For Indigo” is a collage of improvised instrumental pieces, meditative and ambient, while “Mostly Chimes” uses a small orchestra of wind chimes to lull you into uneasy dreams. Soothing balms following the drama of Songs.