Big Thief’s previous masterpiece, Masterpiece, caught my attention in such a subtle way that it was almost missed, entirely. In fact, after several listens and once it had finally sunk in how amazing this album was, I shared it with a friend, only to be reminded that I had seen the band, live, opening for another Brooklyn favorite, Here We Go Magic. I remembered that my initial reaction was to rave about how amazing they were, only to completely forget the experience, all together. This may seem like a shortcoming for a band. But, to create something that is so “in the moment” is what any great artist truly strives for.
There’s a masterful resourcefulness in the music of Big Thief. It’s unassumingly brilliant. There is just enough happening to convey what needs to be said. Capacity covers very heavy, personal subjects for Adrianne Lenker. This subject matter is presented in a way that is less concerned with being palatable, as it is with being digestible. The music and lyrics hit you right in the “feels”, at the same time giving the listener room to process the words, as much as the surplus of unique musical ideas. This is a rare kind of “rock” band that is propelling music forward with a comfortable sound that is all their own. It’s a rare thing to hear a band and immediately recognize that they’ve “got it.”
The nature of most songs is the exaggerating of something small into something bigger than we can grasp. In the scope of time and space, our relationships, belongings and even our individual lives seem a bit inconsequential. But, our day to day worlds are only as vast as what we can see in front of us. We take our little ideas of love and heartbreak and project them onto mountainsides and oceans and the stars. So, when the subject of the song turns to something as vast as the celestial bodies in our solar system, they must be miniaturized and brought down to our level. Telescopes don’t make objects larger. They bring them closer and condense them down to a size that we can perceive and understand. On Planetarium, this ensemble of great talents achieved this through science, mythology, art and the array of instruments in their respective tool boxes.
It’s hard to escape the the urge to describe this album with metaphors of floating giants, clearing their own orbits, sharing a common direction in a system larger than themselves. After all, the musicians involved are some of the most creative, talented and ambitious artists, working today. And, in their orbits, you will find no shortage of projects that have taken on their own space and gravity. The music on Planetarium has influences clear to anyone familiar with any one of these musicians. I’ve heard “super groups” where everyone is just competing for space, forming a giant ball of ego and others where little to no conflict occurs, leaving each individual artist to just play on their strength, with no transformation, leaving you wondering what’s the point of bringing great minds together, if nothing new can come of it . But, Planetarium has clarity and (here it comes) clear “space” between each artist, dancing in concentric circles, in their own time and orbit, yet all tied to a giant, brilliant sun that reaches to the farthest end of it’s system, changing the face of each individual body, all the while illuminating each individual’s features.
All flowery bullshit aside. Planetarium is art music at it’s best. The concept of this album could have easily been taken literally by the artists and made for a great tribute to Sunday Morning PBS “learning through songs.” But instead, it embraced the vastness of existence and our lack of understanding, painting beautiful pictures of unknowns, be it through Steven’s painfully personal way of looking at the world, or Dessner’s sense for song exploration, or Muhly’s mastery of sound structures and textures. This is our contemporary collaboration, like Byrne and Eno, Riley & Cale. These happen at times of great musical discovery, when the classical world takes notice of the pop world and vice versa, and like the comets that orbit around our planet, only appear once or twice in a generation.
Morby caries the torch for the troubadour laureates of the past; the misunderstood, individualistic artists who’s very voices could reach mythical status. There’s nothing extraordinary about these artists except for their effortless approach that makes it seems as if they’ve been doing this for thousands of years. City Music is more punchy than last year’s Singing Saw. There are a couple more rockers, strategically placed to reenergize after some lovely, lengthy, lighter fair. But, all are delivered with that “fuck it all” delivery that makes Morby’s music so damn appealing. And, where Singing Saw really seemed to lean on it’s meandering nature, City Music is no less free flowing, but done so in a way that doesn’t sacrifice songwriting and arranging. There is an abundance of hooky chord changes, dynamic shifts and engaging instrumental interludes. Morby had the “sound” figured out a long time ago. It seems the songs weren’t far behind.