Innate, “god-given” talent is a merciless, inherently unfair reality of human life. Hard to identify, and even more impossible to quantify, we find ourselves scrambling to underpin the ridiculous achievements of our fellow humans with some kind of reasoning or scientific explanation. Someone wins more gold medals than anyone in Olympic history? It’s because they’re an anatomical freak of nature. Someone achieves academic supremacy at a stiflingly young age? Their brain is wired for it.
Luckily, when it comes to the arts, the emotion and the strength of positive reactions that any film, book, or album illicit cannot be undermined by such notions. Defrocked of our need to explain, instead we submit to those responsible with a childlike adoration for the visuals, words, or sounds they were able to string together. We receive their work as a lightning bolt from the far reaches of space and time, and it changes us for the rest of our lives.
As the final moments of Big Thief’s monumental fifth album play out, and silence falls where, for the last 80 minutes, nothing except indie-folk of the highest calibre has been found, it’s impossible to avoid the feeling that this change has happened once again. The afterglow of the titanic achievement of ‘Dragon…’ fails to recede for hours afterwards, with the listener existing in a kind of starstruck daze. It’s difficult not to be both awestruck and befuddled, trying to understand how the hell this band, comprising of four relatively unassuming musicians, was able to pull this off.
A discography littered with masterpieces doesn’t quite feel like enough of an omen either. Sure, they released 20 tracks in 2019 too, but these were spaced out over two releases, and five months, and feel like two halves of a complete hole. Trying to dissect Dragon… in the same way is utterly pointless. It is as complete as any album you care to recall, and it sustains this cohesion from second one to second 4873.
It cannot be the fault of anything other than the sheer talent of this band that has afforded them the ability to do something like this. Having also seen solo projects from 3/4 members in that time (Adrienne Lenker released two solo records back-to-back, guitarist Buck Meek and drummer James Krivchenia also released individual albums), the sheer productivity of these people is nearly too much to comprehend on its own. The fact that none of these projects is anything less than great speaks to their unsinkable collective ability, something as unattainable as it is unrelenting.
Everywhere you look on Dragon, whether it be the eight previously-released tracks – including proper highlights 'Little Things’, ‘Simulation Swarm’, 'Certainty’, and 'No Reason’ – or to the relative oddities of 'Blurred View’ and 'Wake Me Up To Drive’, its unbounded brilliance is something that never fails to fall front and centre of the listener’s focus.
Trying to pin it down into words is something that is not only impossible but also superfluous. Because you can go around the houses as much as you want, dissecting it from every angle, discussing it from every perspective. Every single time, you’re left with the realisation that it’s a towering achievement of music that still, unbelievably, doesn’t feel like the extent of the genius of Big Thief.
Unlike so many acts who, on the crux of achieving superstardom decided that a behemoth of a record is what their fans wanted, only to collapse under its enormity, the band don’t falter at all here. They threw everything at this record, including playing the icicles and refusing to limit the gaze of their mighty songwriting force – the album’s rather ridiculous name is drawn from Lenker’s solo track 'Anything’ and that rather aptly describes everything she discusses on this record. And they’ve come out the other end with a truly talismanic record that will live long in the memory for any who experience it.
Words: Mike Watkins
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