Big Thief – Masterpiece

Love. Oh, love. It’s the reason to be alive. It’s the pits. It makes you want to share yourself. It makes you loathe every bad decision you’ve ever made. It asks you to be a better person. It often gives you nothing in return. It reminds you of every reason you’re worth someone’s time. It reminds you that you’re your own worst enemy. When it’s the end of the world and you’re with the one you love, it’s bliss. And when it’s the end of the world and the one you love is an irreparable distance away, it’s fucking agony.

Has there ever been a better encapsulation than these first few lines of Big Thief’s song “Real Love”?:

Having a bad week. Let me touch your cheek. I will always love you.
Having your face hit, having your lip split by the one who loves you.
Real love makes your lungs black.
Real love is a heart attack.

Big Thief first disarmed me with the song “Jonathan”, which is, again, such a simple and brilliant proclamation of what it means to be expanded and devastated by love. I have played the shit out of that song. And while the two-guitars-two-voices arrangement was pretty, I yearned for some full-band arrangements. And man alive, did I get them.

Masterpiece takes the stunning lyrics, the plaintive, beautiful vocals, and the complementary guitar work of those earlier recordings, and adds a solid rhythm section. It trades in some of the folk picking ideas for some saturated, soulful strumming. The songwriting is nuanced and excellently arranged, but still manages to pull off a timeless, archetypal quality. The bass and drums do exactly what they need to, both in their parts and in the textures they add. The lead guitar work never overpowers the song. And the recording is so, so wonderfully warm. In other words, this record is a pleasure to listen to.

Well, except it isn’t. Masterpiece, for me, is like pressing my tongue against a sore tooth: it’s excruciating but I can’t help but do it again and again. These love songs go the full gamut, from blissfully happy to the terror of losing the person who means the most to you. A teacher once told me an anecdote about the music industry: everybody says “no more love songs,” and then the next song they buy is a love song. Big Thief has managed to speak universally about love, but also find a novel way to do it. They’re not saying anything you haven’t heard before, but they’re saying it in a way that feels like a breath of fresh air. Even when the lyrics border on the familiar, like “I’ll be the cause of our deaths,” they manage to earn it with earnest, intimate singing and tasteful arrangements. This album is free of cynicism or posturing.

By the end of the last track, “Parallels”, the way it balances crushing minor-key and hopeful major-key chord progressions against an ambiguous repeated line, I’m in bliss and agony again. More agony, if I’m being honest, but I think that’s on me and not on this relatively starry-eyed record.

Love is a common arguing point with friends over beer or, these days, over the internet. Is that end-of-the-world feeling real love? Is it realistic to hope for that feeling, or is it only associated with volatility, or with youth, or with reading too many love stories? Can we hope for more than functional from our relationships? Can a relationship continue to burn brightly, hotly, a stone you hold in your hands to keep you warm? Is love big enough or strong enough to be good to ourselves and good to others? Big Thief’s Masterpiece is a compelling argument that it’s not unrealistic to aim for that end-of-the-world love. In fact, it argues that there’s really nothing else worth fighting for.