While Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You might be a double album, I’m going to make an argument that there are actually three versions of Big Thief on show across it’s twenty songs. I’ve tried for a while to come up with a clever way to differentiate these different editions of the band. But I’ve failed. So for want of a better system of description, and because I’m lazy, I’m going to break things down as the Big Thiefs of the Past, Present, and Future. Bear with me. I will make this make sense.
Just to be even more confusing, I’m going to start by discussing the future. In songs such as ‘Time Escaping’, ‘Heavy Bend’, ‘Blurred View’, ‘Wake Me Up To Drive’, and ‘Simulation Swarm’ I see a band who are stretching towards a new sound. You can imagine a world in which they’d released these five songs alongside five others as this year’s album and people would’ve been talking about how Big Thief had made a major evolution, reaching for something slightly more experimental and even slightly psychedelic. It’s an exciting direction for the band, but one that might challenge some fans who fell in love with the band at the time of songs like ‘Paul’ and ‘Masterpiece’. For me, ‘Time Escaping’ and ‘Simulation Swarm’ are both absolutely outstanding songs that are among Big Thief’s best music and if their next release was to venture further into this realm I would not object at all.
When I talk about Present Big Thief, I am referring to the parts of DNWWIBIY which seem to be a direct and expected development from 2019’s U.F.O.F and Two Hands. Songs that might have fit well on one of those albums. ‘Certainty’ is the standout from these tracks for me. It has the gentle lull of much of U.F.O.F but hints at the bite of Two Hands, too. It’s another total stunner that will sit well with long term fans. The title song would also fit into this category but, having seen Big Thief’s recent Manchester show, I do wish the rockier, more upbeat version of this song that they played had made it to the album. Other songs I would include here would be ‘Sparrow’, ‘Little Things’, ‘No Reason’, and ‘Promise is a Pendulum’.
Perhaps most interesting of all to me, though, is the Big Thief I least expected to see on their newest record. Using the term ‘Past’ to describe this version of the band is probably not the most useful thing, but it was the best I could do. So deal with it. What I mean when I say Past, though, is that this Big Thief seems happy to revel in their influences in a way that they perhaps haven’t before. There is no way that someone can hear songs such as the glorious ‘Spud Infinity’ and the joyful ‘Red Moon’ and not think back to some of the biggest names in folk-rock’s past. I can’t hear these two songs without think of Dylan’s ‘Jack of Hearts’ or ‘Visions Of Johanna’ – which, for me at least, is a very good thing. Big Thief have always been a band that comes from a clear tradition, but it is an absolute joy to see them really revel in that fact on occasion here.
Luckily for me, I adore all three of these versions of the band. And I am hugely impressed by how they can live together here to create an album that seems cohesive and manages to not get stale even at a very long 80-minute run time. That’s commendable. At this length there are of course a couple of songs that don’t do as much for me as others (‘Sparrow’ and ‘Love Love Love’ for example) but I think the joy of this album is that there will be other people who think they are the standout tracks. The times when the album isn’t engaging for me aren’t about a dip in quality, but rather just a moment when one of the Big Thief’s on show overrides another and my tastes take a back seat and I just have to enjoy the ride. And when the album is grabbing me, it is doing so with the most confident and commanding songs of their career. Some might see an 80-minute double album as indulgent but to me it feels like a band at the peak of their powers, enjoying every moment, reveling in the magical songwriters they are, and creating a masterpiece.
Words by Fran Slater