4AD · October 11, 2019
The second album released this year by seemingly unstoppable Big Thief, Two Hands uses raw instrumentals and cunning vocals to show that the band’s greatness is not in their unique sound but in the sense of intimacy they create. The album is billed as “the earth twin” to their more ethereal “celestial twin” U.F.O.F., released this past May. The album focuses on the directness of human experience: blood, sweat, tears, and dirt. Pared down instrumentals and the honesty of lead singer-songwriter Adrienne Lenker’s poetic lyricism propel the album deeper into the terrain of quiet indie and folk rock that it knows so intimately.
The album opens with the quiet “Rock and Sing,” a broken-down song that gives the impression of, as most of Lenker’s songwriting does, a look into her diary; poetry that drips with emotion whose context remains unknowable to a stranger’s ear. She writes of her emotional instability, of being tired of her fear of the world outside. “Confuse my home for a refuge / I don’t want to be scared of / Anybody coming in / I don’t want to lock my door anymore.”
Next is “Forgotten Eyes,” whose candid commentary on the state of the world has led to the album being labeled “political.” The song addresses the collective experience of humanity. Lenker takes note of the way the homeless are often forgotten, writing that this ignorance is a “tear” on the cheek of our collective humanity. However, the song reads less political and more as a Lenker’s pondering on the grievances of humanity and the part that she plays in it.
“Two Hands” is pared down yet upbeat, a simple folk song about love and the mysteries of life. If U.F.O.F. was an exploration of the unknown, then Two Hands is a resolution to these questions. “Two Hands” accepts the reality of unknowable mysteries in terms of Lenker’s relationships, “And the more that we try
/ To figure through the answers / To repeat ourselves / To deny, deny.” It’s as if Lenker is realizing the costs of dwelling on questions whose answers can never be known, agreeing to focus instead on what is intimately knowable.
“Shoulders” features heartwrenching, visceral imagery that solidifies the albums roots in both the gritty and the beautiful. The verses speak of love and bare skin, as Lenker sings of a lover she turns to for protection. The chorus turns to blood and pain, as Lenker sings of guilt and sorrow. The song crescendos with Lenker’s pleading voice, heavy with emotion as she cries “The blood of the man / Who’s killing our mother with his hands / Is in me, it’s in me, in my veins.” The song’s raw emotion is the epitome of what Big Thief does best. The track has been a live fan favorite for years, one of four previously written tracks that the band recorded for this album (the other three being “Not,” “The Toy,” and “Rock and Sing”).
“Not” is the album’s other notable angsty track, following Lenker’s musings as she tries to find an answer to some truth that is “not” in any of the various realities surrounding her. The song is a repetition of negatives, a grocery list of the things that are not the long desired answer to Lenker’s question. The listener is left wondering about what the question and intended answer are anyway, but it feels as if this is the intention of the song. It is not important what the answers are, but what one encounters on the way to finding them.
The album finishes with “Wolf,” “Replaced,” and “Cut My Hair, ” three slower songs that speak again of mystery, sorrow, and relationships. “Wolf” is the most notable of the three, with Lenker singing of a lover she hopes will save her from the darkness within her, her own “wolf” hunting her for prey.
Two Hands is nothing new in Big Thief’s repertoire, but rather a dialed down, honest compilation of everything that makes the band so special. Big Thief puts the idea of band as family into practice in a way that is rarely seen, and the trust and camaraderie between them, along with Lenker’s honest lyricism, allows the band to convey truths of sorrow, pain, and confusion in a way that is visceral and rare. The album is a show of the band’s mastery of studio recordings. It’s a simulation of the band’s live shows, where one has the opportunity to see the ebb and flow of the members working together in harmony. Lenker’s unfiltered exploration into what it is that makes us human is perfectly fitting for the times in that its commentary is one that will always be relevant. Two Hands paints an honest portrait of humanity in all its glory and pain, in a way only such a dedicated and skilled band like Big Thief could do.