The Reverie of 'Mary'

Best New Track by Big Thief

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Adrianne Lenker has a voice that demands an immediate stillness. Listen – even halfheartedly – and life’s incessant noise will begin to fall away. The cluttered thoughts of one’s mind are seemingly silenced, the daily blows of worry suddenly ache a little less. It is a characteristic experience of Lenker’s indie band Big Thief, whose somber songs are often likened to lullabies for the bruised adult. Yet Lenker’s emotional energy commands more than the sleepy passivity implied by a lullaby. Stillness instead lends itself toward attention, as you find yourself unable to draw away from her careful, omniscient storytelling. Nowhere does this present itself more clearly than on Big Thief’s ‘Mary,’ the penultimate track off their 2017 sophomore album, Capacity.

A droning church organ underscores this sparse track. At the song’s onset, its single chord radiates: hymn-like, quieting. When Lenker joins, her airy voice is clear and near, as though the floating organ has lifted her closer to our ears. Or perhaps it is that Lenker is softly beckoning, pulling us into her intimate space. Her phrases arch and sustain, slowly building as the spacious piano rolls in. Then, a shift. Her vocals dip away for a moment. The single chord of the organ floats on, a brief ethereal space punctuated only by the occasional piano. This is the stillness that Big Thief so artfully controls, even heightened in the absence of Lenker’s voice. When it finally returns for the chorus, you are compelled to grasp at each word.

A series of melodic thoughts pour out, plummeting forth into the next. Lenker half asks, half states: “What did you tell me Mary –” before she flows into recounting distant memories of her childhood friend. Here her voice takes on the sweet whisperings of girlhood – breathy, full of light – as she floats from one recollection to the next: “Your eyes were like machinery / Your hands were making artifacts in the corner of my mind.” These are the abstract lyrics that Big Thief are known for – relying on a language of similes and metaphors in a way that leaves space for you to ponder their uncertainty. On ‘Mary,’ these hazy, inconclusive renderings serve the listener even further: they invoke the desperate process of memory altogether.

Like we all do, Lenker is clinging onto anything she can remember. Her voice takes on the cadence of a soft march, swelling as she filters through images – “Diamond rings and gutter bones” – to fragmented ideas – “We felt unfocused fade the line / The sugar rush / The constant hush / The pushing of the water gush.” These singsong phrases are propulsive, each summoning the next. The piano, understated until now, starts to punctuate Lenker’s rhythmic listing. The delicate pressure reaches its height as Lenker sings “Push your gin Jacob,” inflecting the alliterative words to match a brief crest. Brief, as it diffuses just after it wrecks you. This minute-long chorus ends referring to Mary once again: “Here we go ‘round Mary in your famous story book,” almost as though Lenker is left to circle back endlessly, her memories whirling like a merry-go-round.

We are stuck in a reverie here, basking in what feels like the familiar ache of nostalgia. There is more though. This chorus doesn’t quite imply a simple yearning for the idyllic past. What instead fills us is the affective moment of urgency. It is as if Lenker must hasten to pile her fuzzy feelings lest she forget too soon. It is this urgency, Lenker’s honest process of recollection, that devastates. For everyone has their Mary – that fleeting friend whose image saturates the memories of childhood, who is impossible to capture wholly. One can only pull, desperately, at the essence she has left behind before it is too late. And perhaps it is always too late.

There is something about Mary –the person, her memory – that will forever be tragically incomplete. As much as ‘Mary’s chorus is an exercise in memory, it is also an admission of this irreconcilable loss. Lenker’s lyrical ambiguity, the tense orchestral hum of the track, her hopeless breathiness – it all composes an incantation of this particular breed of grief. While Big Thief twists it into a kind of serenity for their listeners, it is the sort that is destined to ache.