Big Thief’s ‘Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You’ is sprawling, emotive portrait of worlds in flux

Cover of the new Big Thief album "Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You"
4AD/Courtesy

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Grade: 4.5/5.0

Big Thief is a titan of industry, not in the sense that they adjudicate the boundaries and gravitations of the indie folk genre, but purely in the sense that they release music perennially at the vanguard of what music can and should be. With a distended, Fiona Apple-esque title, the band’s highly anticipated fifth record, Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You is no exception; it traverses genres, geographies, consciousnesses and the life cycle of a relationship with exceptional precision of craft.

Written in part during the band’s quarantine in the Vermont mountains, the album’s high naturalism fastens its folksy sound to something capable of withstanding the test of time. But, like nature, it also vacillates. There are moments of Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You that feel more like they belong to the ether, not dew-festooned meadows or dusty topsoil. As lead singer Adrianne Lenker lilts on the title track, “It’s a little bit magic.”

There is an effort to extrapolate this magic from the mundane, to turn it over like a stone in listeners’ hands and parse an understanding even if the answers lie beyond what’s comprehensible. But this ignorance of the supernatural is broached not with fear but wisened acceptance. “Death, like space/ The deep sea, a suitcase,” Lenker sings on “Change.” 

This tranquil acknowledgment of fleeting existence is contrasted with some of the album’s deep cuts that foreground anxiety and relationship turmoil. Even with the transition from folk rock to electronica, the brevity of “Heavy Bend” is jarring when sandwiched by lengthier tracks. “Blurred View” is similarly disarming, each anaphoric “burn for you” bores through the veneer of placid stability. 

Even on tracks that closely adhere themselves to the record’s established folk and bluegrass sound, there are blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moments of interruption. Lenker’s aerated voice — coupled with a diaphanous flute — is overtaken by discordance, knocking out of orbit what was previously stable. 

Lenker coaxes meaning and profundity from even the most banal things in life, transforming domestic, utilitarian objects into totems. Like totems, her subjects recur throughout the record: Geese, needles and thread, flowers and baked goods all fade in and out of frame, a testament to her lyrical brilliance.

Further revealing Lenker’s keen ability to spin gold from words are countless instances of clever wordplay, rhyme and manipulation of syllables. On the title track — one of the strongest on the record — lush balladry invites rumination on past love, mirroring the lyrics “I believe in you/ Even when you need to/ Recoil” and “Do you remember me too?/ We were coiling.” Palpable emotion in Lenker’s voice spirals until the band erupts into sublime cacophony.

There are also moments throughout the album that feel more grounded, bordering on humorous. Take, for example, “Spud Infinity,” where Lenker sings in a modulated Southern croon about potato knishes, elbow kisses and crusts of garlic bread, backed by a boisterous bluegrass melody. But even on “Spud Infinity” the group gets existential: “What’s it gonna take/ To free the celestial body” is repeated until it begins to feel like a plea.

Bookended by external sound bites taken from the recording studio, Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You takes care to intersperse moments that deconstruct its mythos; the process of writing and recording the album remains present in listeners’ minds. Its closing track, “Blue Lightning,” is an odd note to end on, small in scale, and more lyrically simplistic by contrast. After 80 minutes spent reveling in weighty emotions and layering rich instrumentation to the point where it almost seems the record’s knees would buckle, it finishes with the airiness of a sparrow or gust of wind.

There is a strong case to be made that modern culture has become increasingly predictable and aesthetically unappealing, detached from the naturalism and heart that propelled it for centuries. On Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You, Big Thief offers a glimmer of redemption, constructing eccentric beauty in its form and execution.

Emma Murphree covers film. Contact her at [email protected].