Big Thief – Capacity (Saddle Creek)

You would expect the Sublime – age-old philosophical mystery – to be something grand. Caspar David Friedrich, of course, dangerously standing on the edge of a magnificent cliff, peering into the unknown fog-obscured abyss. Or jumping from an airplane, feeling the ever-present mortality that comes with being a human as closely as you’d feel your beating fearful heart. Or, perhaps, one of those Sigur Rós crescendos, building and building into near absurdity but still causing goosebumps all over. Montages of atomic bomb explosion mushroom clouds juxtaposed with violently blooming flowers and (why not) fast-forwarded slowly melting glaciers.

You would expect the Sublime to be like that, and you would be in good company – but you would be mistaken.

If  Big Thief are right about anything at all (not in a philosophical sense: Capacity does not explicitly expound a theory; but rather in spirit), and I wholeheartedly believe they are, the Sublime is to be found in the smallness of the details. A young man holding a child (echoes of Tigermilk); an empty white landscape, not necessarily vast or extreme, just empty and white; a ‘great’ white shark, hiding in the dark.

What Capacity offers, then, is a kind of abstraction of that Sublime, stripping away the massivity, the extreme, and leaving us with something fleeting and light, thin music that’s halfway through ascending to heaven (so, a kind of anti-Sigur Rós). None of this, by the way, in the platonic sense: whatever you can say of Plato’s Ideas, they don’t possess the modest minimalism that Big Thief are getting at. Also, the songs, and especially the lyrics, are too grounded for that. ‘Mythological Beauty’ is about vocalist Adrienne Lenker’s parents and family (“I have an older brother I don’t know / He could be anywhere”), while ‘Mary’ is an ode to an intimate friendship (“And my brain is like an orchestra / Playing on, insane”). What transpires is a certain dualism – the music fleeting and abstract, personal and true the lyrics – which is echoed elsewhere on Capacity, like in the mind-body dualism of ‘Coma’ or the wordplay on ‘capacity’/’captivity’ on the title track.

The Sublime, as we know, is not the same as bliss. It is not a contradiction, therefore, that Lenker’s lyrics are filled with pain, trauma, and love (there is no reason why the latter doesn’t belong in that list). But is it blasphemy to claim that there can be beauty in suffering, once the physical pain has worn off and the passage of time has coloured and faded the memory? How else could every single track on Capacity give me goosebumps? How else do you explain the possibility of music? But perhaps beauty is not the right concept with which to analyse these songs at all, and that’s what the Sublime is getting at (or that’s what I’m getting at with my interpretation of the sublime)? Who knows.

Big Thief, in any case, does know, because why else would they teasingly call the central track on their album ‘Mythological Beauty’. That’s a cheeky wink in the face of the critic who tries to analyse – the mythological, after all, is in a sense pre-analytic, primordial. But not quite right, either (we keep going in circles), as the beauty on Capacity is more every day, which might be why it is so hard to grasp. An everyday mythological beauty, then. Let’s settle there. Better to surrender to the music now.

-- Caspar Jacobs, June 30, 2017