U.F.O.F., the new album from Brooklyn-based band Big Thief, is a lovely, elusive work. The first three letters of the title stand for exactly what anyone would think they do, and the tacked on consonant represents the word “friend.” On the group’s bandcamp page, lead vocalist Adrianne Lenker elaborates further on the derivation of the name of Big Thief’s third album.
“Making friends with the unknown… All my songs are about this,” offers Lenker. “If the nature of life is change and impermanence, I’d rather be uncomfortably awake in that truth than lost in denial.”
As a descriptor for Big Thief’s music on the new album, “uncomfortably awake” is probably better than anything I possibly could have concocted. Ethereal and earthy at the same time, U.F.O.F. stalks slowly, insinuating itself so deeply into the psyche that it can feel as if it’s gradually displacing the soul. I often find material like this to be so spare that it vaporizes before my ears. At times when I listen to the new record, I feel myself drifting away. And then, through mystical artistry I can’t quite define, it grabs me again, forcefully and lovingly demanding attention. U.F.O.F. is released by 4AD because the laws of the universe mandated it.
Up and down the track list, the individual entries are like swirls idly drawn in chalk on cracked asphalt. The cuts can be homespun (“Cattails”) or probing (“Orange”) or delivered in a tender cascade (“From”), but at a fundamental level they share a painstaking sense of craft and care. At times the indie folk ease of the material gets so blithe yet earnest that it recalls the anxious haze of the certain artists as the nineteen-seventies pushed to a close, the Laurel Canyon mirage giving way to the scalding sand of music industry reality. In that rough mode, “Century” gurgles to life with a restless bass sound and a lovely thistle bush of acoustic guitar, sounding like vintage Paul Simon as produced by Lou Reed.
Lenker’s voice is another unifier to the album, even as she finds variations in tone and timbre that seem to stretch to infinity. She is grounded, fervent, wary, and sincere, comfortable in the uncertainty cultivated in the songwriting. As she notes, she makes friends with the unknown. On U.F.O.F., she makes such an act, which can have the surface appearance of foolhardy risk, into an act of supreme, enviable wisdom.