REVIEW: Adrianne Lenker – Songs and Instrumentals

It has taken me a while to review this album for a few reasons. Firstly, I spent a lot of time listening to the instrumental element of the album and wondering how my limited musical vocabulary could integrate that part into my main review. I decided to simply say this about it; it’s beautiful, you should listen. Secondly, having made the mistake of jumping the gun on previous Lenker works (Big Thief’s UFOF, for example) I was very aware that such intricate and intimate songs deserve to be given the time they need to grow, the chance they need to work their way through your skin and into your bones. And thirdly, once they had wheedled their way into me, I found it hard to figure out quite how I would successfully represent their power on the page. In the end, I just had to give it a go…

I should probably start by saying that there are signs of just how affecting this album is on the very first listen. The way she sings ‘everything eats and is eaten’ on ‘Indygar’, for example. Or the opening lines of ‘Anything’: ‘Staring down the barrel of the hot sun/Shining with the sheen of a shotgun/Carol has a little if we need some/Joa has a ride if we wanna come.’ Or some of the early moments of album highlight ‘Zombie Girl’, in which Lenker once again demonstrates not only her lyrical prowess but also her ability to imbibe the mundane with the otherworldly to create something extremely relatable. ‘What a dream that was/I almost couldn’t wake because/I was frozen in bed with a zombie girl/Vacant as a closed down fair.’ Just beautiful.

But I will say that, on my first few listens, it was pretty much these moments and only these moments that really stood out to me. I made an early call on Songs and Instrumentals. Like her previous solo album Abysskiss, it was a beautiful and well put together piece of work – but it was nothing like a match for the work she does with her bandmates in Big Thief. Oh, how wrong I was. The more time I spent with this album, the more I was able to notice the pained beauty in every song. Almost every moment, to be precise.

This album has garnered some comparisons to Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago due to how and why it was written. Having recently been through a breakup just before the world descended into a pandemic and forced us all behind closed doors, Lenker took that pain to a one room cabin in the woods of Western Massachusetts. Recovering from a broken heart at the same time as facing up to a global crisis, she wrote and recorded these songs in the space of five weeks. You can hear birdsong on some of them. At the start of ‘Come’ you hear her chair creak and the patter of rain on the cabin roof is audible throughout its five and a bit minutes. All of this works to create an album that is almost chilling in its honesty and openness; you feel like, as Lenker comes to terms with all that is happening around her, you are sat beside her with a comforting arm but the inability to say the right thing. It is a stunning affect. In one of the most interesting musical moments of the album, final song ‘My Angel’ seems to cut off and end without warning. The abrupt ending of the album seems to highlight the powerlessness of everything she has been doing to try and put herself back together again.

After allowing all of the songs to grow on me, and giving myself time to absorb their meanings, I have to say that there isn’t a dud on this album. It is her best solo work and as good as a couple of the Big Thief albums. But it really isn’t an album for every day. Like the Bon Iver album mentioned above, and similar to some of Nick Cave’s more recent output, it is an album that might take you somewhere you don’t want to go if you are not in the right frame of mind that day. This might be the first trigger warning I have ever written on an album review. But if you want to get a sense of what I mean, I will end my review of Songs and Instrumentals with some lyrics from ‘Dragon Eyes’:

‘Freezing at the edge of the bed/Chewing a cigarette and repeating/Shadows of the words I said/I don’t wanna blame you/I don’t wanna blame/Stars bloom in the warm summer night/They have a clear view/Without the bedroom light/They don’t wanna name you/They don’t want a name.’

 

Words by Fran Slater

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