Big Thief have wasted no time in following up their debut album Masterpiece, which was released last year. Their new album Capacity feels like an inward retreat, a record of introspection both lyrically and musically.
The opening song of this album, Pretty Things, is unsettling with a strangely strummed guitar and downbeat vocals. When she says she ‘don’t always do pretty things’ you feel this is a statement of intent about the whole album. Some of these songs are deliberately odd and misshapen.
Shark Smile is probably the most upbeat here and that’s about a fatal car crash. The title track, Capacity, says ‘do what you want with me, lost in your captivity’ over electric guitar sounds that loop round and round like you’re the one trapped in this doomed relationship. This is an album about being contained and imprisoned – sometimes by choice – and the muted, sometimes pained music reflects this.
Great White Shark is exactly the kind of song you write when you’ve been listening to too much Elliott Smith and you can hear his influence through many of the other songs here too. But it’s an impossible task to emulate the simple truth of his lyrics and bittersweet melodies. Maybe Big Thief might get there one day, although in some ways you probably hope that they don’t. Getting that close to the edge creates good art but it’s a dangerous place to aim for.
Mythological Beauty explores the theme of family, with a slightly disturbing central story about a childhood accident that was nearly fatal. The unusual narrative style has the lyrics written from the point of view of a child speaking to their mother, who seems to be struggling to cope. There’s a maturity here in the theme of this song, even if some of the lyrics feel deliberately obfuscated.
Haley is more uptempo and has the lines ‘if you ever want to come back/you know my arms are always open’ and this refreshing lyrical directness actually improves the song and brings variety to the album. Mary’s slow piano accompaniment allows the vocal to stand alone – here’s it’s less about singing more just cramming the song full of breathless words.
This is a deeply personal album and in a way that’s what keeps the songs from connecting easily with the listener. It has a prickly core and therefore lacks the melodic touches of their debut or a stand out singalong indie pop song like Masterpiece.
Yet I find myself going back to this album, listening again and trying to pick apart the knots in it. Sometimes the more complex the tangle the more you appreciate it when you eventually figure it out.