Review: Big Thief singer Adrianne Lenker enchants with restrained sound on ‘Abysskiss’

Photo courtesy of American Songwriter

Story by Hayden Goodridge / Contributing Writer

Since the advent of digital recording, the music charts have encouraged the idea of filling songs with “more” wherever there’s room to fit it. Just look toward the Hot 100, and you’ll find layers-upon-layers of vocals, heavy-hitting drum beats, frenetic synth-lines and hardly a moment for listeners to take a breath.

That’s not to say it’s a negative change — the limits of a song now seem pretty much endless — but in the process, we’ve left the idea of artistic restraint to collect dust in the museums of music history and instead went on in pursuit of the maximal.

But there’s something to be said for simplicity in songwriting. When an artist gathers the courage to step away from a protective shield of copious sound, they alone are left as the sole focus of a listener’s scrutiny.

With that being said, listeners would be hard pressed to find a release this year that more richly embodies that bold artistic decision than Adrianne Lenker’s latest solo album, “Abysskiss.”

Last year, Lenker and her bandmates in Big Thief weaved their way into the ears of indie-rock listeners with their sophomore release, “Capacity,” with singles “Mythological Beauty” and “Shark Smile” earning ample airplay. The record maintained a balance of lush full-band instrumentation with Lenker’s tender touch of vocals and came across as a glimmering collection of sincere musical scenes.

“Abysskiss” instead leaves a distinct impression of solitude. Each track on its brief run-time feels like a personal meditation laid out with one or two guitars and Lenker’s lone voice. It’s utterly enchanting, as the combination of plucked guitar and resonant lyricism cradles listeners in a blanket of tonal warmth.

In fact, “Warm/So warm” are the first lines we hear from Lenker on the opening song, “Terminal Paradise,” while the acoustic guitar plays just behind her with the same effortless grace as a classical harp. Lines like “See my death become a trail/And the trail leads to a flower” resonate with beauty, yet contain a meaning she never fully lets us in on.

This pleasantly ambiguous lyricism is found throughout “Abysskiss,” where verses on songs like “Blue and Red Horses” come across as ruminant metaphors:

“Little red flower on your wrist

Maybe the angel fired and missed

Blue and red horses on the run

I think the angel is jumping the gun”

It would be a mistake to pin a specific meaning on lines like these, but the beauty in them — and Lenker’s songwriting as a whole — is the ability to stir up evocative imagery from a vulnerable corner of her life.

While the majority of tracks on the album tend to bleed into one another with similar structures, “Symbol” stands out against the rest. The urgent guitar melody and muffled beat that compose the scene lay out a bedding for Lenker’s vocals to fall into. When the droning verse opens into the dreamy chorus, it’s like watching an orange sun shedding light over a dawn horizon — spellbinding to witness but almost impossible to capture outside the moment.

As exciting as it is to hear bombastic music that demands our full attention, albums that come and go in subtlety like “Abysskiss” can create a captivating power in their sparse approach as well. It’s a strange phenomenon when artists like Adrianne Lenker generate a singular beauty with so few musical elements to stand on.

If done right, the stripped-down sound becomes boundless in its reservation.

To contact Lifestyles Editor Sydney Wagner, email

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