The celestial mystery of the UFO has long been a fascination of modern popular folklore. They represent the unknown, a sort of mythical uncertainty of what could lie outside the confines of our narrow lives . On Brooklyn-based indie folk band Big Thief’s third record, ‘U.F.O.F.’, the alien beings play the role of the interested outsider, a ‘Friend’ lending an ear to the enigmatic voice of Adrianne Lenker as she weaves a tapestry of spiritually intense stories.
‘U.F.O.F.’ sees the wonderfully prolific Lenker take centre-stage again following a quadruple hit of albums (both Big Thief and solo) over as many years. Recorded in rural western Washington at Bear Creek Studios, this sense of pastoral openness is apparent on the album’s overall aesthetic as the simplicity of nature starts to clash with the otherworldly. A series of meditative thoughts over a dream-laden, hazy night in the prairies.
Album opener ‘Contact’ sees Lenker’s vocals float softly like clouds in an open country sky alongside a softly noodling acoustic guitar groove, before unexpectedly pivoting on an audible, blood-curdling shriek, ushering in a spiky guitar edge as dream turns to nightmare. Or not, so it seems, "just like a bad dream you’ll disappear" Lenker sings on the title track over guitarist Buck Meek’s lusciously complex arrangements.
Musically, ‘U.F.O.F.’ is an accomplished feat. Grounded in acoustic guitar-driven folk rock, Meek’s mystical textures are sprinkled over Lenker’s lyricism to heighten the record’s transcendent feel. From the trickling piano swirls at the end of the tightly-knit country-indebted ‘Cattails’ to the wandering baseline strolls and hypnotic strummed chord progressions of ‘Century’, this is a restless record that refuses to sit still.
Often it’s the little things that have the biggest impact - whether it be James Krivchenia’s syncopated drum fills, flashes of dynamic feedback or the soaring harmonies at the end of ‘From’ - that give in the most insular of folk songs a sense of ethereal grandeur.
The beating heart of the album is extracted from Lenker’s lyricism. There’s a beauty in the darkness of the images Lenker conjures on ‘U.FO.F.’ - her words often painting the most harrowing of scenes “vacant angel, crimson light, darkened eyelash, darkened eye” she whispers on ‘Open Desert’.
Whilst on ‘Betsy’ she makes use of a deeper vocal tone to evoke the clash of nature with the city and the narrator’s unease with her environment “drive into New York with me how she keeps me calm/ street lights, boys, and poison palms”. Betsy being just one of a plethora of oracular women that appear and vanish again over the space of songs.
These are horror stories, calmly regaled tales of unease and disorientating explorations of what lurks behind the expected. An observation of both the ugliness and wonderment that lies within and how these disparate emotions so often intersect, whether it be the surrealism in the earthly (‘Strange’), the cyclical nature of life (‘Terminal Paradise’) or how a true realisation of the depth of ones love can be found in moments of despair (‘Orange’).
As the static drone of the UFO can be heard sailing off into the distance at the end of final track ‘Magic Dealer’, one is left to reflect on the series of vignettes that have preceded it. As Lenker put it in the record’s supporting notes “if the nature of life is change and impermanence, I’d rather be uncomfortably awake in that truth than lost in denial.”
In its essence 'U.F.O.F.' is a noir folk record that embraces the uncertainty of life and the terrified state of unknowing. An absorbing, mystical voyage that lingers in the memory long after morning has broken and the celestial observer has vanished.
Words: Rory Marcham
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