Release Date: June 9, 2017
Label: Saddle Creek

In my last album review, I spent several paragraphs explaining how the details of a person’s personal life could be extraneous to analyzing an album. Especially when the details are those sorts of universal emotional travails we all have experienced in one way or another. That kind of context is not unique or notable, so it is not always helpful in approaching a record. But here, this week, we have Big Thief’s Capacity. Turns out, context doesn’t matter except when it does.

Not that there is a lot of personal backstory provided in the band’s press materials. Those mostly focus on the process of recording the album (i.e. the location, the season, and people that all played a role). If you dig a little deeper, however, and read some of the interviews that appeared in the build-up to Capacity‘s release (and even, its predecessor album Masterpiece), you’ll gain some insight into the lyrics and themes that appear therein.

Take lead single “Mythological Beauty.” Its lyrics are largely framed in the second person, and yet there are moments of first person perspective that interject to offer commentary. When the “I” appears in the third verse, the tone shifts from observation to narration, recounting an incident from songwriter Adrianne Lenker’s childhood when a railroad spike fell from a treehouse and gashed her head:

“Blood gushing from my head, you held me in the backseat with a dishrag, soaking up blood with your eyes. I was just five and you were twenty-seven, praying, ‘Don’t let my baby die.'”

The scar from the near-death experience is still visible in the shaved-head press photos accompanying the release of Capacity. This is a clue that any of the lyrical scenes could be drawn from Lenker’s real-life. “Haley” could be about the loss of friends that comes with an itinerant lifestyle:

“Just like that, she is, I mean–we are–we are gone…Just like how it used to be, Haley, kicking around, burying the letters we wrote. Oh, wondering what yours might’ve said to me…”

When you move around as a kid, you’re encouraged to write letters to your old friends, keeping pen pals, until your new, more immediate friendships eventually supersede. But occasionally, you might reflect on what it would have been like if those friendships persisted. Some withstand that withering, others don’t. All of this is brought into sharper focus when you know a little bit about Lenker’s personal history. In an interview with Pitchfork, she describes how her family “lived in 14 different houses until [she] was 8, renting here and there.” Maybe that longing for rooted normalcy is more than fictitious experimentation on the part of the songwriter.

Elsewhere, we’re left wondering whether Lenker has been through a fatal car crash as described in “Shark Smile” and whether her mother was ever put into a protective coma as in “Coma.” More likely, not all of these events can be explicitly mapped to Lenker’s life experience. The writer can draw influence from any number of sources: friends, family, current events, the written word, random imagination. That Lenker is able to so seemlessly muddy the waters between the real-life and the invented is a testament to her capacity as a songwriter.

Many of the reviews I’ve read for the album use a metaphor to describe the feelings evoked by the songs: looking through boxes of old pictures, awash with memory. While there is no doubt a good amount of personal history informing Lenker’s lyrics, I wonder if these equivalences might be more informed by the album cover of Capacity, and Big Thief’s previous album, Masterpiece–candid moments, washed out, illuminated by the hard light of a flash, and absent of the bokeh requisite for today’s “classy” photography. The most photo-album evoking song on the album, “Mary,” is also Capcity‘s high-water mark. It’s stream of consciousness imagery unfurls with a hymn-like chant, over a plaintive piano and organ accompaniment. It draws from Lenker’s memories of her grandparents’ house, among other things. She told NPR, “First it sounds and then it means…That song feels like crying and laughing at the same time.” And that’s what it feels like to me too.

Throughout the album, the straightforward musical accompaniment is perfectly suited to the songs. Most of them feature the standard rock band instrumentation: two guitars, bass, and drums. A few break the mold: “Pretty Things” with its fingerpicked acoustic guitar, and “Mary” with its aforementioned keys. Lenker’s voice has a dusky vibrato reminiscent of the great voices of country music. It’s at once emotive and aloof, allowing listeners to engage with each song on their own terms. It all adds up to a record worthy of deep, repeated listening, and one where a little additional reading helps enhance its contours. Context is one of my favorite aspects of music-listening and it took Capacity to remind me of that fact.