The hoedown of “Red Moon” is next, and if you’re listening digitally, the transition comes with comical quickness: It’s hard to imagine how a pair of songs by the same band could be more divergent than these two. Dragon seems particularly well-suited to the double-LP format, which necessitates a break between them, with “Blurred View” closing the first disc and “Red Moon” opening the second. The individual sides can be plenty scatterbrained on their own, but there is an obscure order to the tracklist’s organization. The bittersweet simplicity of “Change,” which opens the album, is reflected in “12,000 Lines,” which opens its final side. The sweeping stillness of the title track, at the end of side one, signals a close to the beatific opening stretch, and the side-two opener “Sparrow,” a baleful retelling of the Adam and Eve story, hints at darkness to come.
Lenker spoke in a recent interview with Pitchfork about learning to be “more fearless” in her writing: “more confident in myself and less worried about…how people will receive something.” Her heightened willingness to follow her impulses is evident throughout Dragon. At one point in “Sparrow,” she ends four successive lines with “apple,” an audacious disruption of her own rhyme scheme, unsettling your expectations and building tension toward a climax in which Adam rolls Eve under the bus: “She has the poison inside her/She talks to snakes and they guide her.” Her bailiwick as a writer has extended in two directions, reaching toward cosmic-religious significance on one side and unadorned observation on the other. “Sit on the phone/Watch TV/Romance, action, mystery,” she sings on “Certainty,” making the experience of unfocused screen time sound as timeless and universal as a sunset.
If Lenker has a central preoccupation on Dragon, it is the way these high and low poles of experience coexist and inform each other: the way an unassuming bunch of weeds can give you a flickering glimpse of the interconnectivity of all things, or a moment of heartbreak might be inexplicably magnified by the sudden apprehension of houseflies on the ceiling. Which is another way of saying that her great subject, as always, is love. What could be more profound, or more ordinary? “Change,” for its first two thirds, is concerned with elemental things: wind and water, life and death. Then something hard and tactile interrupts its litany of abysses: “Death/Like space/The deep sea/A suitcase.” A suitcase? From this germ grows a story about a departing lover, until Lenker is no longer asking about dying, but questions that may be even more painful: “Could I feel happy for you/When I hear you talk with her like we used to?/Could I set everything free/When I watch you holding her the way you once held me?”
“The Only Place,” the album’s penultimate song, is among the most beautiful in Big Thief’s discography. Lenker is alone at the acoustic guitar, fingerpicking with such astonishing dexterity that the weight of her words might escape you at first. After an album that has probed at loss and acceptance from every available angle, here is her vision of the apocalypse, presented as plainly as possible. “When all material scatters/And ashes amplify,” she sings, sounding unperturbed by her impending doom. “The only place that matters/Is by your side.”
Buy: Rough Trade