Adrianne Lenker’s music is a singer-songwriter affair in the vein of folk artists such as Vashti Bunyan, pushing the boundaries of the genre with songs that are strangely mythical, foreign yet emotionally familiar. Lenker’s latest two albums Songs and Instrumentals, released together, are folk music of the highest caliber, evocative and rewarding in a way that no other artist has been able to achieve this year. Putting on Songs and Instrumentals feels less like listening to an album and more like hearing raw emotion flow into your ears.
Songs and Instrumentals were created as a way for Lenker to process her heartbreak. Recorded in spring with a Walkman and an eight-track recorder during her stay at a cabin in Western Massachusetts, the albums capture a sound that is staggeringly intimate. Every track is built from acoustic guitars and layered vocals, as well as various field recordings. Across both albums, you can make out fingers sliding across guitar strings, feet on creaking floorboards and Lenker front and center, so in tune with her craft that it’s as if she’s one with the cosmos.
Songs is a breakup record, though you might not recognize it at first. Lenker’s melodies have a misty quality to them, and the songs’ arrangements feel warm and inviting in a way that might feel apt for a quiet, sunny afternoon. “Dragon Eyes” is one of the most beautiful love songs you will hear this year, made with gently chugging chords and Lenker’s airy voice, which — at its prettiest — sounds like birdsong. But alongside the radiance is an acknowledgement that things between her and a lover have changed forever. On “Two Reverse,” Lenker’s heartbreak is made clear as she asks, “Is it a crime to say/ I still need you?” The subject of love is approached in a way that feels transparent to a harrowing degree, and yet the warmth Lenker exudes in expressing her pain produces deep comfort able to be matched by few.
Detail has always been the strength of Lenker’s songwriting, and Songs is full of her most potent imagery to date. On “Anything,” Lenker composes a collage of lyrical vignettes that are remarkably specific and incredibly vivid: mango juice dripping from mouths, wet skin on skin, an argument on Christmas, sliced flesh and a trip to the emergency room. Bathed in warm acoustic guitars and driven by Lenker’s wholly intimate, trembling vocals, it evokes a feeling of yearning so palpable that you can feel the song’s own heart pulse.
The intensity of love is intertwined with violence at the delicate core of Songs. Lenker’s music is at once heart-wrenching and wondrous, strangely soothing as she navigates the painful space of a lost connection in startlingly bare fashion. “Come” finds Lenker recalling the spirit of The Microphones and Mount Eerie as she calmly pleads with another for a sort of gentle destruction: “Take my life into your life/ Take a branch with your knife.” The astonishing “Half Return” turns death in memory into a lullaby with a winding melody and childlike vocal delivery. And on “Zombie Girl,” she contemplates emptiness: “Tell me ’bout your nature/ Maybe I’ve been getting you wrong.”
The companion album, Instrumentals, embodies this request, exploring feeling within empty space. The opening of “Music for Indigo” unfolds in a way that loosely resembles John Fahey’s “Sunflower River Blues” before expanding into an open atmosphere with echoing chimes and carefully plucked strings across its 21 minutes. “Mostly Chimes” is precisely that, but the sound of footsteps crunching leaves and the chirping of birds gives the musical sounds a dreamlike quality that hangs in the spacious air. Though intended as individual listening experiences, Songs and Instrumentals elevate each other and can’t help but feel inseparable.
With Songs and Instrumentals, Lenker has on her hands a folk masterpiece. Both albums reveal her prowess as an artist: She is able to put so much into and pull so much out of her songs, creating music that is highly personal but also intrinsically universal. She isn’t singing these songs for you. They’re for her — though by the albums’ end, you might be the one in need of a hug.