How many ‘Best Albums of 2019’ am I allowed to choose?
It has been the most ridiculous year for music in quite some time, with stonking efforts from old favourites such as The National, The Twilight Sad, Thom Yorke, Bon Iver, and Aldous Harding, mindblowing debuts from Self Esteem, Fontaines DC, and The Murder Capital, and strong contenders such as Loyle Carner, Little Simz, and Slowthai. And I’m definitely forgetting some, too. There have been so many good albums this year, in fact, that I haven’t even gotten around to listening to new releases from the likes of Nick Cave, SOAK, and Michael Kiwinuka.
One band that I thought would be missing from my list earlier this year was Big Thief. When U.F.O.F came out in early May I, like my fellow editor Matt Paul, felt a little underwhelmed. I liked it. But there was something about it that meant I didn’t totally love it, at least not instantly. It was extremely gentle. And, having spent so much time with Adrienne Lenker’s solo album last year, I felt a bit aggrieved at having two songs lifted directly from that album and actually made slightly less perfect during the move. U.F.O.F. has grown on me considerably in the intervening months, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I find it lacks that little bit of bite that made their first two albums so special.
In my head, if not on paper, I was happy to be able to cross Big Thief off my list of ‘End of Year’ contenders. Then, while absentmindedly scrolling Twitter one day, I saw an announcement that one of music’s most prolific bands were going to get even more prolific when releasing their second album of 2019 in October. That announcement came alongside the release of single ‘Not’, and I immediately saw where the bite that had been missing from U.F.O.F had ended up. ‘Not’ is one of the grittiest songs Big Thief have released so far and was also, even from that first listen, one of my favourite things they had done. The signs were good.
In between that announcement and the release of Two Hands I saw the band at Green Man Festival. ‘Not’ was the musical highlight of the whole weekend. And while they didn’t play a great deal of the forthcoming material, I had started to reserve a spot from them somewhere near the top of my list.
And I was right to do so. Two Hands has barely left my ears alone since its release, from its near perfect opening couplet of the sweet but sinister ‘Rock and Sing’ and the beautifully weird ‘Forgotten Eyes’ all the way to closer ‘Cut My Hair’, which really only could be an Adrienne Lenker song. Nobody else could make the subject so intriguing. In between those songs, the album doesn’t let up. While U.F.O.F. felt pretty one note at times, Two Hands consistently switches it up. The move from the slow and brooding ‘The Toy’ to the jangly and high-pitched (in a good way) title song is a particularly strong section of the album and a reminder that, with Lenker’s songwriting, you can never rest on your laurels. These songs feel so surprising, but also so Big Thief. I don’t know how she does it.
On the magnificent ‘Shoulders’ the band manage to cram all these contradictions and moments of wonder into one three-and-a-half-minute long song. With the gentle, searching verses, through a slow but clear crescendo, into a chorus about the ‘blood of the man/whose killing our mother with his hands’, and out again into a slow refrain, this is an example of songwriting that simply can’t be taught. It’s genius. Alongside ‘Not’, it’s another of the best pieces of music Lenker has ever penned.
I really should’ve never doubted them. Since I was introduced to the band in an episode of the podcast, they have been up there among my favourite acts currently working in the industry. This album has lifted them up to one of my favourites of all time. And damn them for making my decision even harder when it comes to ‘Album of the Year’ podcast time, but I really shouldn’t be complaining about having so much amazing music to choose from. If Two Hands doesn’t end up taking the top spot, it will be very close. It is pretty much a perfect album.
Words by Fran Slater