When it comes down to it, where and when usually fall some way behind how and why in most discussions. Adrianne Lenker’s new records - a collection of songs called 'Songs', two long instrumentals called 'Instrumentals' - challenge that idea from the ground up. This is work of a specific time and place, welded to the circumstances that led to its creation.
When the Covid-19 pandemic swept Big Thief’s touring plans from the board back in the spring, shortly before they were set to play a show in Copenhagen, Lenker was cut loose. She flew back to New York and rented a cabin in western Massachusetts, among the foothills of the Berkshires. In a quote that now feels inseparable from the music she made there, she described the space as being “like the inside of an acoustic guitar.”
Recording to eight track tape with a binaural microphone, Lenker and engineer Philip Weinrobe have done all they can to put the listener in that room with them. These records are littered with ambient sounds - footsteps on old boards, the wind rattling leaves on their branches - lending a golden, pastoral hue to songs that navigate the roiling pain and stark reflective interludes of a break up.
The sparse palette - Lenker’s acoustic, incidental percussion, reassuring tape hiss - serves to isolate the quiet brilliance of the melodies, setting their winding, spontaneous beauty against angst that spans existential questioning and the nuts and bolts of severing ties with someone you care about.
“Emptiness, tell me about your nature,” Lenker asks on the sublime, terribly sad 'Zombie Girl'. It is a bracing line, setting the listener back on their heels with 2020’s best impression of Simon & Garfunkel welcoming darkness back into their life on 'The Sound Of Silence', but Lenker doesn’t allow the sentiment to fester. “Maybe I’ve been getting you wrong,” are the next words from her mouth, positing that she might at some stage uncover the purpose of the void that she’s circling in the here and now.
Lenker plays as though the songs are falling out of her, with complex fingerpicking patterns situated beneath hooks that unexpectedly cut back against the grain. The 'Songs' opener 'Two Reverse' pairs an undulating guitar line with deliberate, halting words that feel like they’re anchoring the song to the present: “Is it a crime to say I still need you?” The intimacy of the staging makes each flash of understanding feel like a confrontation.
As much as the cabin in the woods holds sway as a character in this story, it’s the personality and focus behind Lenker’s performances that link 'Songs' and 'Instrumentals' together in a musical sense. The best moments on 'Songs' feel like realisations occurring in real time, but 'Instrumentals' is all about the process of seeking things out.
Its first segment, the near 22 minute Music for Indigo, is another missive from Lenker’s fractured relationship - a passage for her ex-girlfriend to maybe fall asleep to at night. It is a study of uncertainty and possibility, and is home to as many searching pauses and gradual tempo shifts as it is alchemical melodies.
Both 'Songs' and 'Instrumentals' end with pieces that are more ruminative than much of what has come before. 'My Angel' and 'Mostly Chimes' feel like reluctant resets, underlining the fact that these songs were written while Lenker was going through some things. They don’t tie a bow or make false promises - the former twists its title into a repeated dirge before the tape is abruptly shut off, the latter’s chimes fade into found sounds before a silent full stop. The feeling that everything carried on hurting after our view was obscured is tangible.
Words: Huw Baines
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