It’s surprising that “songs” is a breakup album, because it regards the world with joy. Adrianne Lenker, whose unvarnished voice and enigmatic lyrics make her music feel like a private gift to unwrap, observes everything around her with loving detail. In this way, “songs,” with all its joy and its sorrow, could be seen as a love letter to a complicated time. And the way Lenker views these memories—joyfully, longingly, questioningly and in the present tense—reveals how intense, confusing and distressing some of them continue to be for her.
“songs,” together with its twin album, “instrumentals,” comprise Lenker’s fifth solo album. But more than that, they serve as a buffer to five long years of sudden acclaim and frequent touring, a cycle Lenker and her band, Big Thief, have been repeating since the band’s inception and near-instant popularity five years ago. With the impact of a pandemic and an unexpected breakup with artist Indigo Sparke weighing heavily on her mind, Lenker retreated to her sister’s Massachusetts cabin. Thus, “songs” emerged in the quiet wake of global and personal disruption, and what was meant to be a well-earned break gave Lenker the space to untangle her post-breakup memories, thoughts, and questions. She quickly composed and recorded most of the album on a borrowed 8-track tape machine, accompanying herself on guitar.
Like Lenker’s other albums, “songs” is captivating and serene, her masterful guitar accompaniment trance-inducing as always. Considering the vexed origins of the album, however, it makes sense that songs, though full of love, is tinged with conflict. Violent and shocking imagery breaks through otherwise benign lyrics, morphing the album into a dissonant lullaby. “anything,” “songs’” first single, captures the complicated happiness of a bygone memory:
christmas eve with your mother and sis
don’t wanna fight, but your mother insists
dog’s white teeth slice right through my fist
drive to the ER and they put me on risk
grocery store list, now you get pissed
unchecked calls and messages
i don’t wanna be the owner of your fantasy
i just wanna be a part of your family
In actively disentangling her memories, Lenker shows us not only how even the sweetest moments can sour, but how our richest memories must reconcile both good and bad.
The conflict bleeds beautifully into a deep need for simplicity and connection. Whether asking her grandmother for a recipe (“two reverse”) or painting a portrait of someone chewing a cigarette at the edge of the bed (“dragon eyes”), Lenker’s watchful nature works to bridge the sometimes overwhelming gap between herself and others. At the same time, Lenker doesn’t want to talk about anyone or anything, doesn’t want to cast blame, doesn’t want to get anywhere near an argument. In “two reverse,” Lenker is willing to be lied to if it means coexisting peacefully; in “zombie girl” she daydreams about someone simply hearing what she has to say. But this avoidance and need come through most poignantly in “dragon eyes,” where Lenker ends her verses with the simple requests “i don’t wanna blame you,” “i don’t wanna tame you,” and “i just want a place with you.”
Of course, in painting a picture of ease, Lenker shows us just how complicated these memories have become. Lenker knows how easily and how far we can stray from our ideals; and she shows this most strikingly in “not a lot, just forever,” where, in her desperation to fulfil a domestic fantasy and stave off loneliness, she seems to hold someone hostage in a relationship:
your dearest fantasy
is to grow a baby in me
i could be a good mother
and i want to be your wife
so i hold you to my knife
and i steal your letter
But “songs” also tells us that just because love has grown complex doesn’t mean it’s grown ugly. Even in painting pictures of decay, of violence, of barrenness, Lenker infuses her imagery and language with joy, with a deep appreciation for what is and what was, with an endless capacity to perceive and translate beauty. Just as much as her singing voice and her poetry, it’s her open-heartedness that sets Lenker apart and transforms “songs” into something gentle and full of gratitude.