Unpopular Advent 2019 – Day 21

Big Thief – ‘Contact’ from ‘UFOF’

Big Thief have been new to the Unpopular world in 2019 and whilst we have enjoyed exploring their earlier work to a degree, it seems to us as though ‘UFOF’ takes a gigantic step away from the trajectory those earlier recordings might suggest the group were on. So whilst the surely tongue in cheek titled ‘Masterpiece’ set from from 2016 and the following year’s ‘Capacity’ are fine enough as orthodox folk-rock records they do sound largely, resolutely orthodox.

‘UFOF’ on the other hand, whilst obviously sharing the folk-rock roots of those previous efforts, apparently spreads wings and shakes off the overbearing dinginess of that orthodoxy and dares to dream of wilder and more peculiar climes. Didn’t Wire once talk of taking rock’n’roll apart and putting it back together in a different form? Well it feels like on ‘UFOF’ Big Thief have taken their folk-rock blueprint apart and reassembled it according to an instruction manual devoid of useful diagrams and written only in an alien language that no-one in the group can translate. Instead they appear to have stripped the language back to a few patterns and inferences from which they have assembled intriguing new forms that whilst being clearly recognisable as belonging to genres we know and (think we) understand, still seems just off-kilter and deliciously so. The angles are just a little off; joints carefully filed but with holes in the welds to let the dreams in (and out); ancient wood bound to re-cycled aluminium pipework with weathered purple gardening string. Nothing quite correct but everything unquestionably right.

We hear all sorts when we listen to ‘UFOF’. We hear strains of Kate Bush, which we should stress right away is not the ringing endorsement it would be from so many of our Unpopular friends who appear to have elevated Bush to Mystic status. Despite repeated attempts to see/hear what they see/hear we can never find it except in small amounts (though we would certainly concur that ‘The Hounds Of Love’ is deserving of its exalted status). Perhaps the small amounts are all that matter, but Bush still to us remains a second rate Vashti Bunyan with a good deal too many mystical pretensions and an overblown sense of her own cleverness. So perhaps what we mean when we say we hear strands of Bush in Big Thief is that we hear traces of Bunyan echo in the midnight chill, bounced across the Atlantic Ocean and skimming the waves like so many moonlit kisses. We hear something of Joanna Newsom in ‘UFOF’ too. Perhaps it is that same natural strangeness, a peculiarity that might to some seem strained and pretentious, but then like Momus we have never found pretentiousness something to recoil from or reject. Except in Kate Bush, obviously.

Perhaps it is inevitable that listening to Big Thief should make us think too of previous 4AD artists, and certainly when we listen to ‘UFOF’ there are moments when the sparse harrowed textures of the first Red House Painters album spring to mind. Elsewhere too we are minded to recall when Throwing Muses made records that scratched and scalded us with ingredients that were angular and dysfunctional yet somehow conspired to collide in ways that moved us into universes showing vast new possibilities. Like Throwing Muses then Big Thief seem to take Folk, Rock and Pop apart before glueing the pieces back together in ways which never quite fit. We sense gaps. Intuit new meaning from what is left out. They construct that meaning in ways that prod us off-balance; ways that slip around our waist and pull us close; ways that tease and torment in unequal measure and that leave us giddy with a pleasure we want to last forever yet want to end so we can embrace the thrill of finding it all over again.

Now we often feel guilty choosing album openers for our Unpopular mixes, as if there is some implicit suggestion that we have not bothered to investigate beyond that point. Yet ’Contact’ is certainly the number we keep coming back to on ‘UFOF’ and so we drop all apologies and slot it into our advent mix regardless.

‘Contact’ is a song that plays magical tricks on our psyches. It seems to last longer than its not-quite four minute duration, during which it somehow shifts shape from gently benign faerie to snarling beast of the moor. Examined objectively this transformation appears to occur with exactly one minute of the song remaining, initiated by a pause, a scream and an electricity that quickens the pulse. And yet this objectivity barely uncovers the reality of an experience which feels unsettlingly different with each play. Time cuts in and folds itself over on our realities. The pause fractionally shorter or longer with every listening, that gap filled with whatever else might be revolving around us. Off we go again. Spiralling on psychedelic trips that are electrically organic. Something like love. Something like enlightenment.

‘Contact’, like the rest of ’UFOF’ may not be enlightenment but at least Big Thief sound like they are striving for something close by being something other than the expected. ‘UFOF’ is a record that draws us in, draws us back, holds us close at arms length. It’s a record that gives space, gives freedom, gives wonder.

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