Thief of Hearts: Adrianne Lenker’s Empathy

On a rainy night last February, Adrianne Lenker played a show at Pico Union Project, touring for her excellent solo record, abysskiss. Half way through the set a woman started to have a seizure. Lenker immediately called for the crowd to give her space, and after a few tough minutes, it passed and they were able to recover. “I’m sorry,” the woman mustered on her way out. Lenker sweetly, and yet also seriously reassured her, “We’re all in this boat together.” 

It was a moment that underscored an essential part of what makes Adrianne Lenker’s music so special; raw, unfiltered empathy. She took a deep breath, ignoring the flashing ambulance lights blinking through the church stained glass, and started into “symbol.” The entire room let out a collective sigh of relief, as her song filled the room like a warm embrace.

Two career defining Big Thief records later, Adrianne Lenker brings us songs & instrumentals. A double album of just that, which somehow manages to eclipse everything before it. Forced to call off Big Thief’s tour due to coronavirus, Lenker retreated into the remote wilderness of Western Massachusetts, bringing only her guitar and recording engineer friend Philip Weinrobe. While the rest of us were worried about toilet paper, they bottled lightning. Over thirteen tracks across two discs, Lenker and Weinrobe invite the listener to join them in that cabin, reaching almost unparalleled intimacy. 

Part of this is owed to Weinrobe’s startlingly crisp mix. From the chirps of birds on “anything”, the patter of rain on “come,” to the percussive fingerpicking and taps, this record sounds full of life. It gives the music a sense of physicality and place, like they are living biomes as much as they are songs. In this natural sanctuary Lenker is at her most unguarded. These are transportive albums that demand headphones. A few times I popped my head out the window to make sure it really wasn’t raining. And I found myself hanging onto each word that much more, like she was singing from the corner of my room.

Photo by Andrew Brady

Beyond the technical brilliance of the minimalist field recordings turned production, the lyrics on this record are some of the most devastating in Lenker’s songbook. Memories bloom vividly and then wilt, sometimes in the same line. Good times and bad times, love and loss, Lenker grapples with her past, line by line. And her finger work is witchcraft; building rich and challenging melodies in steady, hypnotic rhythm. 

On the final track of songs, she sings of her former lover lowering her down into a grave, calling out to “my angel,” over and over again. And just as you expect the song to go into another verse, the tape clicks and the song stops abruptly. For Lenker, this loss won’t find an easy catharsis. It’s that kind of hot infatuation that singes you like a brand. 

After that gut punch of a closer, disc two’s instrumentals creates a much more meditative space. The first track “music for indigo,” is about twenty minutes of sparse guitar. The piece rises and falls in tempo, freeform but fully formed, eventually joined by the crackle of fire, birdsong and chimes. It feels like Lenker working through her trauma, strum by strum, delicate and intentional. What sounds like a stray discordant note comes to feel like a rebellion, like Lenker is letting herself cry into her guitar, or even letting out some anger for a moment; far from a mistake, just as vital to the process.

The only spoken words across disc two are “I’m starting over.” It doesn’t feel like some big declaration, likely just a quiet word to her friend recording this journey that ends up giving the entire song its emotional anchor. 

Her guitar begins to fade away in the aptly named final piece “mostly chimes.” All we’re left with is the wind, birds distant in the background, and the crunch of footsteps moving through the leaves. After all that came before, that feels like more than enough.

We’re all in this boat together.

Featured photo by Genesis Báez

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