Album Review: Adrianne Lenker, ‘Bright Future’

    “We look at the world once, in childhood,” Louise Glück wrote in her poem ‘Nostos’. “The rest is memory.” The quote springs to mind each time I listen to Adrianne Lenker’s new album, Bright Future, which might, as its title suggests, be looking out on the road ahead, but allows itself the treasure of remembering, the freedom to linger on memories that both fade and harden with the coming of age. Lenker – lead singer of Big Thief and one of today’s most acclaimed songwriters, recording her new album in a forest-hidden studio with frequent collaborator Philip Weinrobe and friends including Nick Hakim, Mat Davidson, and Josefin Runsteen – perhaps has little reason to introduce her new record by dredging up past trauma. But in these fortunate circumstances, she finds the clarity of her senses awakened as they were when running through the woods as a child – a child who happened to be born into a cult and lived in 14 different houses before she was eight, around the time she started writing her first songs. When writing, Lenker told The New York Times, “Sometimes, I feel I have to check: Is that 10-year-old still in me?”

    Not only is she there, still looking at the world and now skilled at turning it into poetry – a child “humming into the clarity of black space where stars shine like tears on the night’s face” – but the 32-year-old musician treats its presence like a gift worth sharing. “We lay around for hours, talk about childhood pain/ Mom and dad and past lives too, I can tell you anything,” she sings on ‘Free Treasure’, which is both open-hearted and open-ended, alluding to different forms of love and reserving plenty for the listener. ‘Real House’ isn’t just about the first real house her parents bought, or the pain, or “trauma” – it follows a stream of emotion that leads Lenker to the heaviest and most precious of memories, that of seeing her mother cry for the first time after their dog died, crystallizing it: a family coming together to hold the body, the way her mother held her hand at the hospital when she was fourteen. The word “needle,” threading the two memories, strikes me as a potent metaphor for her own pen: a sharp and delicate tool that can hurt but also cut through the tissue of her life, and onto others. “Just when I thought I couldn’t feel more/ I feel a little more,” she sings on ‘Free Treasure’; song after song, Bright Future should invoke the same reaction.

    Part of what makes ‘Real House’ so raw and heartwrenching is that it separates Lenker from the instrument she first picked up and that has naturally been described as an extension of her body. Hakim, whom she has known since 17, was playing the chords on piano, so she started singing along, and because the tape was always rolling, the pure magnetism of the performances is captured. It’s easy, when she sings, “I wanted so much for magic to be real,” swaying back through so, to feel her not only realizing but sharing the magic. The feeling is at the heart of ‘Sadness as a Gift’ (“You and I could see into the same eternity/ Every second brimming with a majesty”), a song that both complicates and lightens the grief documented on 2020’s masterful songs and instrumentals. In many of Lenker’s older songs, love was about the blood rushing, the endless tug-of-war, something to plunge headfirst into, bracing for the fall – and by throwing in a scrappy, raucous take on the Big Thief fan favourite ‘Vampire Empire’, she only underlines the album’s overall more serene yet still, naturally, revelatory and complex approach. Maturity tends love into the calm reverence exemplified by ‘No Machine’, but yearning remains wrought by contradictions, as in ‘Already Lost’: “Holding so near, standing so far/ How slow and how fast you are.”

    ‘Real House’ is one of three piano-driven songs that serve as the album’s emotional backbone. Closing Bright Future is ‘Ruined’, which might seem like a dour note to end on; but there’s strength, more than just resignation, in the relentless repetition of the title, the kind she feels without on the opener. In the middle is ‘Evol’, a mesmerizing song in which Lenker formalizes the theme of emotional mirrors by reversing words – “Teach, cheat/ Part, trap” – both warping and vivifying their meaning. It flows like a dream through which Lenker can ultimately see a brighter version of her truth: “You have my heart, I want it back.” It’s the present the album is always rooted in, and desire is always in it, but it bleeds into the past and future – a future that rarely looks hopeful. Lenker was seven years old when she saw the film Deep Impact, which made her think of “the whole world ending.” The thought doesn’t scare her anymore – she knows it is; that death, like a kind of magic, like a door, is no illusion, and we have little control over it. “Every person we ever love, we lose,” Lenker said in a recent interview. “We have to let go of everything, all along the way, until the very end, when you even let go of yourself and your body.” Bright Future shines because it remembers to hold and release, often in the same breath, as if it could sustain it for all eternity.

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    “We look at the world once, in childhood,” Louise Glück wrote in her poem ‘Nostos’. “The rest is memory.” The quote springs to mind each time I listen to Adrianne Lenker’s new album, Bright Future, which might, as its title suggests, be looking out...Album Review: Adrianne Lenker, 'Bright Future'