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Adrianne Lenker: Bright Future Album Review

March 21, 2024 - Music

Two songs on Adrianne Lenker’s Bright Future begin with the woosh of a tape machine settling into its correct speed. The players sometimes murmur among themselves as a song gets going or winds down; Lenker’s voice occasionally grows distant, as though she were turning away from the mic, then rises in volume as she leans forward again. At first blush, these audible moments of calibration signal a certain old-school authenticity. The Big Thief singer-songwriter cut her new album straight to tape, just like the last one, and it has the air of an unadulterated document of the music as it was performed in the studio.

Beneath the surface, these effects suggest a more complex relationship between the recording and the music, drawing attention to the artifice and happenstance of what we’re hearing. By demonstrating so explicitly that this is how the music sounded in this room, on this day, they’re also implying that it might have sounded quite different in another place, another time. The musicians play wispy outlines of folk rock, giving just as much attention to the negative spaces as the notes you actually hear. The aesthetic suits the material. Lenker’s songs find beauty in the attempt to give memory solid shape: to hold it in one’s palms like a wounded bird that sat still when the others flew away, and coax it with a sweet melody into sticking around a while longer. Bright Future is like an attempt to hold the memories of the songs themselves, to stop their wild wings from beating for a moment and get a good look before they vanish in the air.

For all the shaggy-dog presentation of her main band, Lenker often approaches her songs with disciplined attention to form and economy, but opener “Real House” is something different. Its chords float along without clear paths of tension and release; its lyrics are associative rather than linear. In the second verse, a surreal image stands in for feelings not yet addressed directly: “Stars shine like tears on the night’s face.” Eventually, the song reveals its subject as Lenker’s mother, and the fog of ambiguity around the preceding lyrics begins to clear. By the final lines, a devastating recounting of the first time Lenker saw her cry, we’ve moved wholly out of the spectral realm and into everyday heartbreak.

Lenker recorded Bright Future with accompaniment from Philip Weinrobe, her engineer and co-producer, as well as singer-songwriter and frequent Big Thief collaborator Mat Davidson, violinist and percussionist Josefin Runsteen, and alt-R&B auteur Nick Hakim. They did a lot of passing around instruments: The album’s basic palette is voice, guitar, piano, and violin, each of which is credited to at least two different performers at various points. (Runsteen and Lenker’s brother Noah also play occasional percussion.) The free-flowing and intuitive nature of the sessions is apparent in the recordings, which have the amiable looseness of first takes. You get the sense, sometimes, that they are figuring out a song’s ideal arrangement as they track it.


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