Album review: Big Thief – U.F.O.F

The days of watching our childhood through the lense of blurry handheld camera recordings are fading fast, replaced by the picture-perfect quality of smart phones. It’s regrettable. There’s something special about those shaky recordings, the characters becoming clearer with every viewing, the landscapes and locations more identifiable, the memories growing in strength. Big Thief’s third record ‘U.F.O.F’ carries a similar quality; the Austin-via-New-York quartet generate a swirl with their meditative and visceral soundscapes that grows in strength until it envelopes you completely. 

‘U.F.O.F’ is more abstract and haunting than their past efforts. Gone are the fiery choruses of ‘Masterpiece’ and ‘Real Love,’ gone are Lenker’s heartbreaking family stories found throughout ‘Capacity’, and in their place we have a bloodcurdling, Red House Painters-esque haze. Opener ‘Contact’ gives the best inkling of what’s to come, particularly when Lenker sings ‘I wanna drink your milk’ – it’s uneasy and disturbing.

As a band they’ve grown immeasurably, more willing than ever to give each other space to experiment and assert their craft. The instrumental flourishes on ‘U.F.O.F’ are ever-present, whether it’s Buck Meek’s mesmerising guitar, Max Oleartchik’s melodic and pared back bass or James Krivchenia’s subdued yet affecting drums. 

Lenker’s growth though is the most notable.  Label mate Aldous Harding has drawn critical acclaim for the sheer range of voices she showcases on recent album ‘Designer’, and Lenker follows in her wake on ‘U.F.O.F’. Her voice is fluid, transforming throughout; it’s shrill and biting on ‘From’, on ‘Open Desert’ she sounds like she’s singing a child to sleep, while on ‘Betsy’ it’s deeper than ever, channelling her inner-Nico. 

With this record Lenker has reached legendary status. The Big Thief songwriter has now released two solo albums, three albums with her band and an EP with bandmate Meek; all of which are incredible. On ‘U.F.O.F’ you can hear traces of this back catalogue, the choir-like harmonies of Meek and Lenker on ‘From’ remind you of their joint EP, while her vulnerable, faltering vocal on ‘Orange’ draws parallels with her stripped back solo debut ‘Hours Were The Birds.’ Such is the depth of her work, you can now jump backwards, forwards or sidewards, and perpetually find yourself mesmerised, whether it’s by her unique ability to bring you to your knees or her mastery of imagery that permanently paints pictures in your brain.

The mantra of ‘U.F.O.F’ voices itself on ‘Cattails.’ On it they let their hair blow in the wind as they ride through country fields with ‘the windows wide by their side.’ They’re freer and better than ever before. 

U.F.O.F is out now on 4AD

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