We’re less than a year removed from the release of Masterpiece, the great debut record from Brooklyn’s Big Thief, but the second LP, Capacity, is already here. Considering the quick turn-around time between records, it’s easy to see the new album connected to Masterpiece. And first listens will bear that out. These are still rock songs with a rootsy center, tinged as much with folk tendencies as pop sensibilities, and built on no shortage of raw nerve. But the more you dig into Capacity, the more you see it’s not a continuation of the first record exactly. It’s not even an expansion. Instead, it’s a sort of reshuffling, a shifting of parts and refinement of tendencies that gives this record its own feel, and the songs a refreshing, if sometimes quiet, sort of power.
Take opener “Pretty Things.” Like the last album, this one opens with a quiet acoustic number with singer Adrianne Lenker’s tightwire-quiet voice high up in the mix. But this is no preface or introduction. “Pretty Things” opens up into its own impressive, powerful song. Lenker’s chorus — “There’s a woman inside of me / there’s a woman inside of you, too” — lilts over the guitar, sweetly and softly. But her voice takes on an edge as the verse comes back in, singing of men who are “baptized in their anger and fighting” and speak in “deceit and lies.” It’s a song that sets up the dynamics of the record. The narrator is vulnerable, hurt by some male presence, one she tries to both identify with (“There’s a woman inside of you, too”) but never capitulate to. Instead, the song ends in warning. While there may be a “woman inside” of the narrator and that male aggressor, she adds, surgically, “she don’t always do pretty things.” The line evens the playing field, but also strikes back.
The record is built on these kind of shifts and confusions, the pretty and the ugly, the corporeal and the spiritual, what we are and what could be. “Shark Smile” is a doomed travel tale, one that ends in a car crash, and yet still Lenker insists — with a deathly romantic tone — “Oh love, take me too.” Moments of intimacy always seem fraught, the lighting of one cigarette with another, a boyfriend’s knife cutting a finger open, the downright vampiric details of an encounter in “Watering.” But while these moments seem dark, isolating, sometimes harrowing to listen to, Capacity is hardly the kind of record that romanticizes its darkness. Rather, it confronts it.
This is clear enough on the excellent first single “Mythological Beauty.” In it, Lenker recounts the story of her own childhood accident, where a gash in her head nearly killed her. She tells the story from her perspective, but also from her mother’s, revealing all the panic as the they drive to the hospital, a blood-soaked dishrag held to a young girl’s head. But for all the blood here, and on other places in this record — blood and oxygen feel as much like emotions as human necessities on Capacity — this turns more to connection, not to the blood coming from a wound but rather from the blood shared by family. It’s a song about a moment of trauma, but also how that trauma can shape people. “You’re all clawed up inside,” Lenker repeats, “but you know why.” And it’s the question left hanging in air about what to do now, what to do after you survive the trauma, that makes this song and this record resonate.
The record is about what we can become, but also about taking agency in that process. Where “Pretty Things” says “there’s a woman inside of me” as an given, closer “Black Diamonds” has Lenker asserting herself. “Come on let me make a man out of you,” she sings, clearly, sharply, but there’s a playful tone on the edges, like the future is an experiment to play with. This sense of what you can become, the ways we can morph, informs the music here, too. It’s easy to get lost on Lenker’s mesmerizing stories and her intimate performance, but this is a full-band record and Big Thief shows some interesting shifts here. Masterpiece sounded frayed throughout, the guitars jangling and buzzing through the songs, the rhythm section carving out space. On Capacity, though, those dynamics shift. Now the fractures happen on the outskirts of these songs, and the structures themselves feel sound yet exploratory. “Shark Smile” opens with a high-pitched storm of guitars and noise, but the song itself is lean power-pop. Guitars on the title track are drenched in distortion and may have sounded like Americana on the first record, but here they skew more towards the layers of shoegaze. The rhythm section opens up the simple guitar work of “Mythological Beauty,” transforming a folk tune into some wide-open dream pop. The stillness and negative space of “Mary” blooms beautifully as faint textures thicken under the piano’s notes.
As Lenker explores questions of identity and the shapes life can take, the band itself calls its own shape and sound into question. These subtle confusions and upheavals make this record a bracing listen, one that lets the hope under all the harrowing details seep out over time. It’s the kind of record that has an immediate impact, but can also linger over time. It shows a quick growth in confidence from the last record to this one, mostly leaving behind the moments that feel too quiet, too intimate to always connect to from the last record. Capacity is another strong record, and a brave step forward for Big Thief.