The term “magnum opus” falls short in its attempt to describe Big Thief’s February release “Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You.” The band’s first full studio album in three years is an experimental masterpiece that traverses genres and upholds the band’s reputation for lyrical excellence.
With a tracklist of 20 songs, “Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You” is a lengthy, rich journey dipping into acquired themes, both sonic and lyrical. While many of its tracks stay true to the band’s eclectic, wistful sound, others veer into new territory.
Songs like “Time Escaping” and “Wake Me up to Drive” explore a tight, angular electronic sound with a burbling undercurrent of Gaelic folk. Other tracks, like “Simulation Swarm” and “Little Things,” feature a sweet, atmospheric texture that almost connotes fairy-song.
Noncommittal chord progressions throughout the record evoke a sense of mystery and wandering. Just when you think dissonance is about to resolve, it ebbs into another unexpected sequence of sound. This keeps the listener engaged, if unsatisfied.
The titular track is a belated answer to lyrics found in Adrienne Lenker’s solo work. The third verse of “anything” from her 2020 album “songs,” asks, “Dragon in the new warm mountain / Didn’t you believe in me?”
This call-and-response is seen again between the first and final track. The refrain of “Change” queries, “Would you live forever, never die?” and “Blue Lightning” ends with Lenker’s plaintive croon of “Yeah, I wanna live forever ’til I die.” The album is a conversation with itself, a one-woman Socratic seminar that culminates in existential acceptance.
The album’s lyrics offer listeners a liberated perspective on death. Instead of a finale, Lenker suggests that death is “…like a door / To a place we’ve never been before.” At one point or another, nearly every song in the album touches on the idea that love supersedes the fear of death. In “Love Love Love,” Lenker confesses, “When I’m scared to die alone / That’s when I call you on the phone / I tell you that I need your love.” In “The Only Place,” she repeats, “When all material scatters / And ashes amplify / The only place that matters / Is by your side.”
As an obsessive Adrienne Lenker fan, I could be biased, but anyone who has dabbled in the Big Thief discography might agree that each song is nothing short of poetry. In “Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You,” imagery of birds, magic and the cosmos are prominently featured.
The album reads through like an epic about release from earthly ties and sounds like a sticky summer night. Although many of the album’s lyrics are a glimpse into a fantastical world, many are extremely grounded, poignant reflections on why we are here — to stick by each other’s side.
Dissimilarly to unfortunate predecessors like Fleetwood Mac, a break-up in the band did not slow production. Adrienne Lenker and Buck Meek married young and recruited drummer James Krivchenia and bassist Max Oleartchik for the indie-rock phenomenon that Big Thief became.
Despite their divorce in 2018, Lenker and Meek remain close friends and collaborators. The depth and complexity of their relationship is evidenced in lyrics that depict bittersweet, child-like, unconditional love. This love is rarely distinguished as either romantic or platonic, perhaps because theirs isn’t either.
“Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You” is the kind of album best enjoyed on a dusk drive, around a campfire, over a latte or in the mountains. It challenges as much as it delights and ultimately entreats its listener to enjoy every fleeting moment with the people they love.