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First Listen: Big Thief, 'Capacity'


In Big Thief‘s best-known song, the title track from last year’s Masterpiece, singer-guitarist Adrianne Lenker sums up a lifelong relationship in just a few simple minutes. Shrouding her sweet voice in bold, blustery rock ‘n’ roll, complete with a guitar solo, the song serves as a testament to sturdy bonds. It’s warm and empathetic, and catchy as anything.

It would have been natural for Capacity, Big Thief’s second album, to expand on the richness of “Masterpiece” by bathing the band’s new songs in lavish production. But if anything, Capacity takes Lenker to quieter and more private places, with an inward-facing sound to match her ever richer, altogether more intimate storytelling.

These are songs lush with detail, dotted with matter-of-factly dispensed places and proper names (Evelyn, Andrew, Mary, Haley), and yet they’re also abstract enough to retain an undercurrent of mystery. “Shark Smile” paints a vivid picture of a doomed drive, but instead of indulging in road-song clichés, Lenker prefers to linger on illuminative details — “the money pile on the dashboard, fluttering” — en route to a trip’s bad end. In “Watering,” “Mythical Beauty” and elsewhere, Capacity‘s flashes of violence are rendered in bloody poetry, leaving the album’s back half to do the business of healing and adjusting.

There, Capacity takes several stunningly warm turns — most notably in “Mary,” a love song to an enduring friendship. At five and a half minutes, it unfolds deliberately until a dense cluster of evocative words comes spilling out:

“What did you tell me, Mary / When you were there, so sweet and very / Full of field and stars you carried, all of time / Oh, and heavens, when you looked at me / Your eyes were like machinery / Your hands were making artifacts in the corner of my mind.”

Capacity spends a lot of time ruminating on scars — how they’re made, how they fade, how we learn to wear them comfortably. Which in turn makes “Mary,” and by extension the album, all the more cathartic in its soft celebration.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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