Adrianne Lenker: Soundtracking ecological panic

Illustration of ghosts and music notes in a forest
Olivia Staser/Staff

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California burns every autumn. This, now, is a fact to which we are accustomed. This year, a fire in Los Angeles next to my childhood home and a fire up here too, the power out in thousands of homes, all of the hills along the highways charred, all of the food in the fridge rotten. 2017’s fire season felt like the first of its kind. The Thomas Fire scorched Ventura, the Tubbs Fire blackened Sonoma and the Creek Fire tore toward Los Angeles until all of California was layered with ash. That fall, there were more than 9,000 wildfires across the state. The sky was sick and heavy for weeks, bleached rotten white. All signs pointed toward apocalypse. The following spring felt haunted: the clean air dishonest, the green in the mountains ironic.

In June 2017, the band Big Thief released their second studio album, titled Capacity. Even more than their first, it is an album of whispers, of details that reach through devastation toward some kind of intimacy. It is the album of the 2017 fire season.

In “Mary,” Capacity’s first and most beautiful single, the band’s lead singer Adrianne Lenker whisper-sings the melody into action, brooding, “Burn up with the water/ The floods are on the plains”  before wondering, after all the water is dissipated, “Will you love me like you loved me in the January rain?” Immediately we are situated in a transition, an ecological transformation. Was love a condition of an ample landscape, a side effect of abundance?

Even more than Big Thief’s first, Capacity is an album of whispers, of details that reach through devastation toward some kind of intimacy. It is the album of the 2017 fire season.

“Mary” is not explicitly a song about climate change. It’s a song about childhood, of remembering the romance of “Mom and Dad and violins/ Somber country silence.” It is a song about growing old and childhood becoming a story you tell to new loves, a sound you speak into a different life. But what is the difference between asking if someone will love you once the weather changes and the water dries up and giving someone the details of your history, investing your heart in a world that might burn? Both are dangerously uncertain, incredibly precarious. Both risk devastation and invest intimacy in unstable hands.

What is true about right now is that the last 20 years have each, respectively, been the warmest yet; in 30 years, half of all species could be extinct; by 2050, hundreds of millions of people could be displaced, their cities underwater. And who could have predicted apocalypse would feel like this, like a long, drawn-out sigh? The Bible got the motifs right: the fire, the floods. But it miscalculated the temporality of the collapse. How are we supposed to live for so long on the brink of disaster? How are we supposed to whisper and laugh and confess our crushes to our friends under skies that could fill with smoke any second? How do we reconcile what it means to make spots sacred when they could be gone in years?

In “Haley,” an old lover disappears and leaves Lenker “kicking around, burying letters we wrote.” There is a sense of emptying in the song, a haunted ache to her liminality, her idleness. Something had been invested in Haley and now she is gone. Anyone who has lived through heartbreak knows that this is a small form of apocalypse, one that you survive. Still, the song ends with radical grace, with startling and earnest openness: “Any way you walk around/ Anywhere that you are going/ If you ever wanna come back/ You know my arms are always open.” Is this the answer to all of it? Does living on the verge of collapse mean growing a sense of grace around devastation? Does it mean learning to forgive and welcome back the people, the land, that could very possibly ruin us again? I think it means that being haunted is a condition of these times.

…being haunted is a condition of these times.

And Lenker knows well what it means to be haunted. Until she was four years old,  She and her family were members of a religious cult in Indiana. Though they left while she was still young, she told Pitchfork that “there was a lot of residual debris — I was coming out of what felt like a cloud of judgment and control for another four years.” Her song about leaving the cult, “Indiana,” balances a definitive end and the possibility of rooted reinvention. Her family is “standing at the end of a story/ At the foot of a palindrome.” A version of their lives is dead, the landscape of Lenker’s childhood is to be altered indefinitely. What follows is a “palindrome”: a new but reflexive way of being. Her life will and must be different than her first four years, but those years are in her, she remembers.

Surviving all of this means continuous living despite the palindromic haunting. It means welcoming the green back to the hills and expecting them to burn again. There is something ghostly about it all. Maybe that is not a new or interesting thing to say about memory. But this haunting feels different; it is global, universal. And maybe that collective ghostliness is what intimacy looks like right now. That is the space into which Lenker seems to be reaching; she is singing into the spectral, into next autumn’s bracing for fire. 

Contact Lillian Wollman at [email protected].