Adrianne Lenker,  “Songs” + “Instrumentals”

Adrianne Lenker
Songs + Instrumentals
4AD
8/10

For her new solo project, following 2018’s excellent abysskiss, Big Thief leader Adrianne Lenker recorded songs while living inside an acoustic guitar. At least that’s how she described the cabin in Western Massachusetts, where she took refuge to recover post-breakup and after constant touring. It’s also where she recorded Songs and Instrumentals, two albums that unexpectedly poured out of Lenker in solitude, with the help of engineer Phil Weinrobe. Like many of us, Lenker had plans that were cancelled due to the pandemic. Instead of going on tour in the wake of Big Thief’s meteoric rise, she fell in love with a room and wanted to capture its essence. 

The eleven tracks on Songs are warm and spacious with high ceilings. There’s an ashen smell, light passes at strange angles. We’ve been cast into the inside of Lenker’s guitar, into her world where fragmented conversations and intimate moments project themselves in vibrant hues and bitter tastes. Lenker doesn’t create worlds in her songs, she lets her reality seep in and expand her musings. The rain splatters on the windowsills and the wood creaks with every slight shift in weight. Birds chatter outside. There’s a staticky crunch of fresh wind. A fly buzzes across the room. As she explained of her musing atmosphere, “human presence was not a dominating force.” 

Lenker is a songwriter who is unconditionally open. Sometimes she lets us in on the context of the visceral moments she conjures, but the images on Songs feel different. The anger and sorrow feel more pointed, more active. Getting lost in Lenker’s songs is to essentially get lost in her memories. She’s constantly reinterpreting dualities, where the pain sits alongside the love. Her songs are reminders to be more attentive, that memories and adverse feelings can teach us. On “Zombie Girl” wind chimes clatter in the background as she sings about hollowness: “Oh, emptiness, tell me about your nature / Maybe I’ve been getting you wrong.” She befriends her own lack, drawing answers from what first presented itself as darkness. 

There are vivid, sometimes violent images on Songs—a dog bite that leads to an ER visit, “poison stains,” and stars that stab, in addition to the aforementioned zombie girl. But the most unnerving moments on Songs are where Lenker calmly sings about life and death in casual terms—not within the confines of societal rituals, but at their core, grounded in origins of the womb and earth. “Your dearest fantasy is to grow a baby in me,” she reveals in the cheekily titled “Not a Lot, Just Forever.” Later we accompany her to the water. “Come help me die, my daughter / Walk me beside the river,” she sings on “Come.” To not trivialize these constant and awesome life chapters is one of Lenker’s greatest skills. 

The corresponding second album, Instrumentals, is even more enthralling. Instead of getting swept up by Lenker’s visceral songwriting, she showcases patience and intuition. You can feel the poise with which her hands glide across strings, sometimes quietly puttering or fiercely plucking. It’s as if on a rocky hike, Lenker confidently leads us through soothing melodies, but at any point she could step off the path and blaze a new one. These songs, across both releases, feel like spells. Lenker casts them in order to form memories and heal from them, and we listen in hopes that some of her magic will rub off on us.

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