Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
April 16, 2024

Like something so natural: The musical poetry of Adrianne Lenker’s Bright Future

By NOËL DA | April 3, 2024

big-thief-haldern-pop-festival-2018-3

MARTIN SCHUMANN / CC BY-SA 4.0

Adrianne Lenker performing as lead vocalist and guitarist with Big Thief at the Harden Pop Festival.

Those who know Adrianne Lenker, indie folk singer and lead vocalist of Big Thief, cannot help but feel like she has done it again — that is, retreat to a little cabin in the woods and come back to us with an album full of free treasure. For those who are unfamiliar, here is what you must know: She is tender, she strikes hard. With deft wit and infinite care she will take you under her wing and sing you songs about the soft corners of the world. She will spook you and reassure you in turns. 

In Bright Future, Lenker slips between her old haunts (love ballads, acoustic guitar, simple lyricism) and newer preoccupations, adding technological audio flourishes and references to ecological disaster. The title looks forward in time, yet the tracks meander through different perspectives. Some are nostalgic, caught up in the past, while others allude to the great stretch of time that spans the present and future. It’s as if Lenker is flipping through a paper calendar, looking back on the earlier months and writing notes on the pages to come. 

The album’s opening track, “Real House,” drifts quietly backwards into the memories of Lenker’s childhood. Truly stripped bare, the only two noises here are her voice and the gentle jazzy chords of an old piano (actually, the age of the piano is unknown, but it certainly sounds old — you can hear the muffled click of each individual key as it is pressed down and released). The song’s lyrics float inside this minimal scaffolding, repeating a melody but not following any progressive sequence. Two of the stanzas begin with “do you remember…” and all of them contain detached memories, each section rediscovering a memento inside an old cardboard box. It is a sad song, but not heavy, dancing through these long ago recollections with a lightness of foot. 

Less reflective, but just as nostalgic, is “Free Treasure,” which carries all the charm of a childhood lullaby. Lenker fills your head with images of “wild raspberries and apples trees,” the smell of dirt in the backyard, then on your feet and the kitchen tile. Just one phrase — “you’re cooking dinner / it’s gettin’ round half-past-ten” — brings enough warmth to light the kitchen stove in the next line, “Stove light glows like a fire / We’re sitting on the kitchen floor.” The instrumentals match the sweetness: In classic Adrianne Lenker fashion, an acoustic guitar is picked in a continuous folksy style, catching the vocals within its ups and downs.  Still, the present moment must intrude, along with its reminder of adulthood, which to Lenker shows up as “a guy on the nape of my neck” who “tells me not to play.” 

Certain songs, like “Already Lost,” linger in a limbo time between the sentimental past and the sober present, choosing to stay where there is nothing much to talk about, only the lives of the singer and her addressee. Lenker sings, “We’ve been down here for a while / We’ve been down here / A thousand years or more.”

There is something eternal about the way she delivers it, too. The last line spirals up in pitch into a fairytale falsetto, as if she is traveling from her place “down here” up toward somewhere in the clouds. In fact, this is a signature vocal technique for Lenker, perhaps borrowed from her roots in country and folk. “No Machine” uses it too, lifting smoothly each time she sings the word “you.” In the chorus of “Cell Phone Says,” the last line of each verse lilts upwards, scooping up into the sky.

The technique is optimistic, something pretty to look forward to each time you hear it, the sound of a bright future. “Donut Seam” takes full advantage of this. For the first time in the album, Lenker writes explicitly about the future, particularly the apocalyptic future of the climate. With mentions of “acid rain” and flames, “Donut Seam” offers a simple but comforting chorus: “This whole world is dying / Don’t it seem like a good time to go swimming? / Before all the water disappears?” The word “don’t” floats upwards just in time, swinging the verse towards hope rather than condemnation. And she’s right; it does seem like a good time to go swimming.

Other corners of the album remain altogether untouched by the preoccupation with time. There is a stripped down version of cult favorite “Vampire Empire,” where the drum downbeats of the original are replaced by frantic strumming of guitar chords. “Evol” plays with words in a way you may miss unless you look at the lyrics, reversing them and turning them inside out before uttering one simple and aching line devoid of wordplay: “You have my heart I want it back.” “Ruined” delivers pure heartbreak. “Fool” is buzzy and bright, falling away in chunks before coming back together in instrumental swells. Backing vocals and instruments work together to create textured landscapes. As for Lenker herself, her job is to be a musical seamstress: she joins time, sounds and feelings together into a couple simple lines, like something so natural. 


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