For the Records | A Moth To The Flame of Big Thief’s “U.F.O.F.”

For the Records is a series of articles by special guest writer Mike McCubbins on his favorite albums of the 2010s. Click here to read the entire series.


I’ve been listening to U.F.O.F., the third album from freak folk  outfit Big Thief, and I’m falling hard for it.  I’ve listened start to finish at least five times in the past week. This is what happens with albums I love. They take over.

U.F.O.F.  arrived in May of this year.  Its sister album Two Hands was released in October and billed as the former’s  “Earth Twin,” a nod to U.F.O.F’s other-dimensional feel.  Among its store of intricate and smoldering tracks, which on rare occasion grow into blazes, is the penultimate track and slow burn “Jenni.”

Too hot to breathe/
too hot to breathe/

Jenni is in my room/
Jenni is in my room.

Jenni’s is the dream-deep giddiness of a crush made flesh.  It turns the comparatively somber tracks that lead up to it,  all emotionally crisp stunners in their own right, into a rank of dry logs, seasoned over the course of the album, ready to spontaneously combust and bathe the whole affair in a red glow.  This glow washes over me, and it occurs to me I’ve heard its melody before. A song just as languid and breathy. “Too hot to breathe.” When I zero in on it, it’s “Teenager” the woozy with melancholy trip hop ballad  from Deftones’ 2000 album White Pony.

I drove you home/
And you moved away/

Just like that, “Jenni”  and “Teenager” collapse the intervening 20 years, a space in which I’ve gone from a teenager myself into a man approaching middle age.  It reminds me how 10 years ago in late 2009, I decided to write about 10 albums from the previous 10 years, the 2000s, the Aughts, my late teens to late 20s.

Among these was White Pony.  My honeymoon period, my listen-over-and-over period with this album was in the summer of 2000 when I was 18.  But I still loved it in 2009, and I still listen to it now. I went to bat for it in ‘09, hoping to redeem it , and myself honestly, from some of the less flattering music we were associated with in those Y2K days.  In the intervening years, White Pony has in many ways received the re-estimation it deserves. Even Pitchfork has come around.  Though my voice is somewhere near the point of the “long-tail” of internet voices on music, I’m happy to have went on record.

So, why not do it again?

I’ll be writing about 10 more of my favorite albums from the next ten years, the 2010’s, the Teens, my late 20s to—oh my god I can’t believe I’m in my—late 30s.  I must confess that, as I’ve gotten older, the scene has changed and I haven’t exactly kept up. For the most part, I’ve been a lover of indie rock, post-rock, and weird folk in a decade that has moved on from them. Though I sense the tide turning on this somewhat.

Its bands like Big Thief that I look to for my indie rock absolution. U.F.O.F. had me sold from its opener “Contact.” What begins as a gauzy coma of melancholy coming through ASMR whispers takes a hard left turn midway into angular guitars and five well-timed shrill screams so surprising, cathartic, and sublime that it felt like an awakening.

It’s been a minute since I’ve been into new music with screams.  Contact’s turning point works so well because of the voice it emerges from.  Big Thief’s chief songwriter Adrianne Lencker has a vocal delivery similar to Joanna Newsom but often hushed or suppressed as if having trouble mustering the confidence to rise  above a whisper. But there’s something else recognizable in her voice. It’s the voice of a child playing by herself, a little girl in the privacy of her room telling herself strange little stories, a voice, to borrow a line from “Contact,” “both dreamer and dream.”

It’s this voice which she adopts for most of the record, telling strange yarns of UFOs, orange winds, and magic mirrors.   But if the voice is often childlike, the lyrics are anything but. Sex, depression, death, and lies are some of U.F.O.F.‘s main concerns often told through the imagery of a naturalist’s cabinet of bugs, birds, and worms.   On the track “Strange,” she takes their otherworldly points of view.

The silkworm’s rage/
Iridescent thread/
Beautiful and dead/
Billions of worms were boiled to make the bed

See the luna moth cry/
Lime green tears through the fruit bat’s eye

If this is a vivid surreal image, it also refers to real evolutionary adaptations between predator and prey where tearful eyes equate to a survival mechanism.  It makes me aware that I am a moth to the flame of this album. Its soft whispers, melancholy vibe, and obsession with the unknown have me locked in a spiral toward its glow.

Going in, I thought this would simply be an introduction to this For the Records series, but yeah, this is my U.F.O.F. love letter. The nine remaining letters will be odes to personal favorites as well, sprinkled with personal asides, that hopefully capture something of the beauty of the albums themselves.  For now, I need to cue up U.F.O.F for another play-through. | Mike McCubbins

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