30 Mar 2024

Review: Bright Future by Adrianne Lenker

From The Sampler, 2:30 pm on 30 March 2024
Adrianne Lenker

Photo: Bandcamp

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Between 2016 and 2022, American band Big Thief released five albums, and over the last decade, the band’s vocalist and principal songwriter has put out an equal number of solo records. Adrianne Lenker has had a very prolific ten years, and she and the band seem to have hit on the kind of fertile streak that requires immediate capture.

Her latest is called Bright Future, and has the same energy of songs tumbling out onto tape before any over thinking or second guessing can occur.

Like her double album Songs and Instrumentals, Bright Future was recorded live to tape, meaning everyone played together, rather than piecemeal. You can often hear the room that Lenker is singing in, especially when she leans away from the mic. It doesn’t sound like a studio. 

There’s band chatter, and the sound of the tape machine spinning up, and these details do suggest a certain traditionalism, but they also add to the idea of Lenker and her band needing to bottle ideas as quickly and faithfully as possible. Recording isn’t often done this way anymore, but here it’s crucial.

Lenker is wearing a cowboy hat on the cover of the record, and while that feels vaguely subversive for a queer artist who sings about their discomfort with gender binaries, it’s also an acknowledgement of this album’s countrified palette: ‘Already Lost’ features prominent banjo, and ‘Sadness as a Gift’ has genre-specific violin flourishes.

She writes songs that suit her trembling voice, an instrument which sounds pleading even in the album’s happier moments, and while they're often relatively traditional, there are also moments like ‘Fool’, which revolves around complex, tapped guitar riffs. 

If you played those same guitar parts with a lot more distortion, they’d come close to approximating heavy metal. The track ‘Vampire Empire’, an alternate version of a Big Thief track, is even more avant-garde, Lenker hollering over two chords, before her voice starts to jump up an octave, and what might be a xylophone creeps into the background.

There are details to her life that sound like fiction: raised by a Christian cult till she was four, Minnesota state karate champion three years in a row. Big Thief aren’t the most accessible band on paper, but they have hundreds of millions of streams that suggest otherwise.

The mix of safe and experimental on Bright Future is a tricky line to walk, but with Lenker it’s second nature. That title seems to allude to a personal positivity, but the album is sometimes sad, usually on the piano ballads that dot the album.

The last of these is called ‘Ruined’, which ends the album. Despite using a form that’s been around for a long time, feels like a reinvention.