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Review: On ‘Bright Future,’ Big Thief’s Adrianne Lenker remains powerfully optimistic

Courtesy 4AD

By Arman Saxena     3/26/24 11:07pm

Score: ★★★★½

Top Track: “Sadness as a Gift”

While indie folk-indie rock group Big Thief has consistently dropped passionately bittersweet and critically acclaimed work since their 2016 debut “Masterpiece,” the band reached their career high in 2022 with “Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You,” which stands as one of the most celebrated albums of the decade so far. Adrianne Lenker, Big Thief’s lead vocalist, has had no shortage of success herself, with her previous album “Songs” appearing in the year-end top 10 albums list of many major publications. While Big Thief tracks like “Not” and “Little Things” can be noisy and dense, Lenker’s solo work is reliably soothing yet simultaneously heartbreaking. 

With her newest project “Bright Future,” Lenker harkens back to her country roots and delivers the most Americana-influenced album of her solo career since her debut. While recent works from artists like Mitski, Ethel Cain, Zach Bryan and even Big Thief have prominently incorporated Americana’s blend of American folk and country, “Bright Future” distinguishes itself by being stunningly honest, remarkably soothing and poetic.

Lenker opens “Bright Future” with the just-under six minute track “Real House.” The longest song on the album, “Real House” introduces the project’s soft and meditative soundscapes. Lyrically, the song also introduces the listener to Lenker’s melancholic and deeply personal songwriting, illustrating Lenker’s relationship with death and grief. 

The song that follows “Real House,” “Sadness as a Gift,” is an album highlight. Laden with country stylings, “Sadness as a Gift” is a heart-shattering poem of love and longing. On this track, Lenker’s chorus changes in the three times it’s played. After the first verse ends with the lines “Chance has shut her shining eyes / And turned her face away,” Lenker remains optimistic, singing “You could write me someday, and I think you will.” Over the course of the song, the word “think” morphs into “bet” and finally into “hope,” emphasizing Lenker’s steadfast belief in a “bright future,” even in the face of heartbreak and misfortune. 

Tracks five and six, “Free Treasure” and “Vampire Empire” are also standouts. “Free Treasure” is, according to Lenker, “about nature and about the beautiful, pleasant things that are simply part of life for free.” The song revels in the beauty of commonplace things, like exploration, dancing and conversation, that are often underappreciated in one’s life. Fans of Big Thief will recognize the song “Vampire Empire,” and Lenker’s raw reimagining does not disappoint. 

While the album’s songwriting and instrumentation does lose some inspiration on later tracks like “Candleflame” and “Cell Phone Says,” Lenker finishes strong with the record’s closer and lead single “Ruined,” another heartbreaking but ultimately hopeful tearjerker that distinguishes itself with atmospheric ambience that adds cutting power to Lenker’s raw lyrics.

On “Bright Future,” Lenker is predictably tender and has clearly mastered writing the acoustic folk ballad. Her trademark lyrical nuance is on full display and is reliably supplemented by acoustic guitar work that never fails to captivate. For an artist as consistently honest as Lenker, it’s impossible to say “Bright Future” is her most personal work, but her latest project does stand as a return to roots that hits hard with its emotional and musical maturity. 

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