Review: Adrianne Lenker – songs
National Music Reviews
Adrianne Lenker = Elliott Smith + Angel Olsen + Mimicking Birds
While writing her new album, songs, Adrianne Lenker spent much of her time lying down in the dirt. For an artist whose songwriting often feels like a plea for the secrets of creation to reveal themselves, it seems that moving closer to the ground has done the trick. With softly piercing fingerpicked guitar throughout and intimate lyrics that are at once homespun and heavenly, Lenker makes it clear that she has unearthed a restorative sense of stillness. The resulting collection is capable of stopping listeners in their tracks and is likely to replace any pre-existing emotions with the quiet demands of solitude.
songs arrives alongside its counterpart, instrumentals. Both albums were recorded inside of a one-room cabin in the mountains of Western Massachusetts, where Lenker found refuge after her band Big Thief‘s tour was cut short in early March. Liner notes include a hand-written bio that outlines the period of several months Lenker spent in the cabin writing, recording, cooking on a wood stove and bathing in a nearby creek. With acoustic qualities similar to the inside of a guitar’s body, the cabin and its surroundings offered inspiration. Soon, Lenker recalls, “the songs were flying through my ears.” Recording sessions began and ended with bouts of improvised acoustic guitar exploration which would eventually be collaged together to form instrumentals.
Several tracks on songs weave ambient sounds from within the cabin together with the analog layers of Lenker’s guitar and vocals. “Come” begins with the meditative pittering of rainfall on the roof, as the grim pulse of the guitar recalls Chopin‘s “Funeral March.” Death—and the liminal space between the finite form of the human life and the natural world—are recurring themes of songs. “Come help me die, my daughter /Walk me beside the river to the beach,” sings Lenker, exploring her own existence as a part of a cyclical process of life and death. As she repeats over and over on “ingydar,” “Everything eats and is eaten.” This quiet refrain, when sung into the void like an incantation, is the acceptance of nature’s unavoidable arrangement. When Lenker writes that “these songs have helped me heal,” we can assume this is what she means.
As the guitar dwindles toward the end of “come,” the sound of rain returns. A rainy day would be a fitting time to listen to songs, as the sound of rain from within a cozy shelter seems to naturally incline humans to be vulnerable to existential contemplation—the precise condition that is invoked by these songs.
Place-specific memories and forest imagery fill the stanzas of songs. Without the music, the bare lyrics read like a Mary Oliver-esque chapbook of nature poetry and odes to the Midwest. Often, observations and memories seem to bleed together, resulting in an intertwined patchwork of human relationships and austere metaphor. On “dragon eyes,” Lenker sings, “As the coastline is shaped by the wind / As we make love and you’re on my skin / You are changing me / You are changing.” In the world of Lenker’s imagination, the mysteries of intimacy are akin to the wonders of ecology.
Internal rhyme on “two reverse” further displays Lenker’s tendency to listen to her surroundings equally, no matter the source. “Grandmother / Juniper / Tell to me your recipe / Is it a cry I hear from the deep wood?” With her small, faintly whistling voice, Lenker exhales her loving words with generalized melancholy and intense reverence.
In accordance with Lenker’s entire body of work, songs is stunning, easy to appreciate and disconcerting. This album is like a grizzly bear sighting—the sheer power and grace on display is awe-inspiring, but it’s also potentially paralyzing. Lenker’s grappling with the secrets of life and death is affecting enough to thoroughly and uncomfortably alter a listener’s disposition. What sets songs apart from her past releases is that, for Lenker, the catharsis here is palpable. For a musician who seeks connectivity and stillness through her music, songs is successful—like a strong medicinal tonic. Fortunately, Lenker chooses to share this process, and as she writes in the bio of songs and instrumentals, she hopes the music “can be a friend” to us, too. –Austin Beck-Doss