It’s scientifically proven that one of the boldest moves for an artist to attempt is to follow up an excellent, universally acclaimed full length album with another full length release in the same year. It has been done less frequently in recent years, but when artists manage to pull off two great albums in the same year, it’s a consistently impressive feat. Two Hands is American folk-rock outfit, Big Thief's attempt at this milestone, coming less than six months after their previous album, U.F.O.F. It is a collection of mostly electric songs, recorded almost entirely live, and is composed of a mix of brand new tracks and fan-tested staples of their live show. Two Hands shows the band in a different mode than displayed in U.F.O.F., and mostly succeeds as both a stand-alone album and as a companion piece.
It was tempting to hastily derive a narrative for the album and the band’s trajectory after the lead single ‘Not’ came out in August. While the band had dabbled in fuzzed-out rock before, particularly on their debut Masterpiece, never had it been as unhinged, ferocious, and snarling as it was on ‘Not’. Upon hearing it, I extrapolated and assumed that Two Hands must be their rock album to set right their balance after U.F.O.F. veered further into atmospheric folk territory than any previous release.
Two Hands is definitely more of a rock record than U.F.O.F., though the rest of the album is more in line with their established blend of folk and indie rock than the departure into blistering chaos that ‘Not’ might suggest. The second single, ‘Forgotten Eyes’, is more representative of the album’s sound: relaxed, spontaneous, and a blend of loose and meticulous, the sound of prodigious, Berklee College of Music trained instrumentalists jamming together. As opposed to much of U.F.O.F. which thrived by describing minute, vivid details, ‘Forgotten Eyes’ takes a more macro focus, with its chorus of “The wound has no direction. Everybody needs a home and deserves protection” advocating for universal empathy and basic human rights.
The album succeeds the most in its more upbeat numbers, particularly when it dives into newer territory for them. The title track is a highlight, propelled by layered, intricate guitar arpeggios and skittering percussion. ‘Shoulders’ comes the closest to matching the unbridled fury of ‘Not’ with an explosive chorus featuring macabre lyrics like “and the blood of the man who kills my mother in his hand is in me.” It’s one of lead singer Adrianne Lenker’s most expressive and tortured vocal performances to date.
The mellower songs are more of a mixed bag. Intro, ‘Rock and Sing’ is a brief, gorgeous song built around a tender descending guitar riff, kind of like if Big Thief was commissioned to compose a lullaby. ‘Those Girls’ comes to life late in the song, as bassist Max Oleartchik gets a time to shine with some up-the-neck runs over an instrumental passage. The closing sequence from ‘Replaced’ to ‘Cut my Hair’ is made up of three pretty, stand-alone songs which blend together to their slight detriment when listened to in order. Overall the quieter moments are more direct than they are on U.F.O.F. In the former they are shrouded in ethereal arrangements and often sounds like Big Thief are playing behind a thick layer of translucent fog; here, for better or for worse, it sounds like they’re right in front of you, and when Lenker requests “please, cut my hair,” it reads like an earnest invitation.
Releasing two albums in one year, while impressive, also makes reviewing the second one a little unfair. In this case, it makes Two Hands hard to separate from the context and shadow of U.F.O.F., which is still Big Thief’s boldest, most cohesive statement to date. However, Two Hands is much more than an afterthought, more than a series of songs that didn’t make the cut onto U.F.O.F. It’s a looser, simpler, louder statement that covers some new ground for the band, and some familiar territory with a new degree of directness and spontaneity. Overall it’s not the group’s most consistent album, but the highlights are as essential and daring as anything they’ve done.