Big Thief Releases New Album, U.F.O.F

Written by on May 12, 2019

I will always associate Big Thief with a very specific time in my life.

For a few weeks during last year’s winter break, I worked for the Department of Residence Services, doing various odd jobs like helping residents retrieve forgotten items from their dorm rooms and shuttling documents around campus. It was an easy job and I had a ton of time to myself after work every day.

Maybe I had too much time to myself because I often ended up with very little to do but listen to music and watch Gordon Ramsay reruns. Campus changes completely when the students are gone. Nothing is open, there is no illumination through the windows and you can walk down the Esplanade without seeing another person. The heart is gone. I made plans to visit friends on my days off, but a sudden snowstorm and some car trouble left me stranded on frozen Kent island.

So, during those three cold and lonely weeks, I got into Big Thief’s music. The first song of theirs that I heard was “Shark Smile,” a wild story about someone who, mesmerized by her lover, crashes while speeding down the highway and gets impaled by a guardrail. Something about the weird juxtaposition between the morbid lyrics and warm rock sound really got to me, and before long I’d listened through the Big Thief catalog several times.

There’s a lot to unpack with their music, but the biggest takeaway is that it’s really bold for its genre. Frontwoman Adrianne Lenker isn’t afraid to sing about unusual things — memory loss, siblings she’s never met, automobile expos. Love songs about men show up right next to love songs about women. I can’t relate to many of the characters and scenarios in Big Thief songs, but they’re just so vulnerable and warm that it’s hard not to sympathize.

So when this new album came out, I was excited to see if it would live up to the big expectations set by its predecessors. And I think it does, but in a different way than expected.

On U.F.O.F., the gritty realism of Big Thief’s first two albums is replaced by a softer and more magical realism. It’s kind of like if “One Hundred Years of Solitude” was set in West Virginia. Take the title track for example, where Lenker sings about a mysterious “UFO friend” over folky finger-picked guitars. The third track, “Cattails,” paints a picture of a wrinkled old woman floating down a river in a lawn chair.

In addition to the lyrics being a little “softer” than the previous albums, the vocals are also softer to the point where Lenker is almost whispering sometimes. This is surprisingly successful, as it allows more room for dramatic volume changes and shows a different side of her voice.

U.F.O.F. also takes a different direction instrumentally, with more acoustic guitars and synthesizers that creep up in the background on occasion. It’s a simpler sound that puts a greater focus on the vocals and lyrics. The band sometimes takes simplicity to the extremes, like at the end of “Jenni,” when a guitar solo turns out to just be the same note played 45 times in a row. It’s up to you to decide whether that’s creative or lazy.

Despite all of that, this album is still undeniably Big Thief — a portrait of joy and struggle in rural America, in the form of three-and-a-half minute love songs. And while I didn’t listen to it while hunkered down in frozen Kent, I’m confident that that past version of myself would have loved it.

So far, my favorite songs on U.F.O.F. are “UFOF,” “Cattails,” “Strange” and “Jenni.”

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