Adrianne Lenker – abysskiss: “Quiet, dignified, moving”
Adrianne Lenker is an artist with a lot of pain in her past – but there’s much more to her than that. She was born into a religious cult, almost killed aged five when part of a makeshift tree-house fell on her, and was dragged around the mid-West throughout her childhood by itinerant parents who relocated their family whenever their constantly-changing interpretation of God’s will demanded it. After they divorced, she spent her teenage years being home-schooled and trying, with increasing reluctance, to fulfil her Dad’s dreams of her becoming a popstar. But then she was extraordinarily lucky – after attending the prestigious Berklee College of Music on a scholarship, she serendipitously met her future bandmate Buck Meek on her very first day living in New York city. They formed the band Big Thief, and last year they released Capacity, one of 2017’s finest records. It is a dark, personal album of spectral, crepuscular folk-rock. Songs like ‘Shark Smile’ and ‘Mythological Beauty’ are truly astounding, Lenker taking her present and past and examining how her interpretation of one impacts upon the other with delicate, evocative poetry.
But Lenker’s music is not all about pain and sadness (!) though it would be easy to file this, her second proper solo album, into that dark but oddly enticing draw. abysskiss is an album that tenderly and intimately embraces, apprehends, and examines her pain, but ultimately finds an appropriate place for it in her daily life; as stoics like Lenker would have it, life contains suffering eo ipso, the point being to digest that truism and stop trying to avoid it or wallow in it. This is almost a happy record about sadness, where pain is located, accepted, and given a circumscribed but important role in Lenker’s life.
As the sleeve suggests, this record finds Lenker caught between places, the songs written while touring around the world with Big Thief over the last two years. The sound is gothic acoustic folk-rock, with spare, osteal production provided by Luke Temple of Here We Go Magic. Frequently, Lenker simply sings her poems in her curdled croon over fingerpicked acoustic-guitar arpeggios, perhaps with some atmospheric noise or a subdued piano in the background, but no trace of drums. It’s noticeably more minimal than the full-band production of Big Thief. But Temple and Lenker don’t indulge the impulse to milk the feels with reverb, and that’s to their credit. Opener ‘terminal paradise’ risks giving a false impression by being by far the most depressive track here. The guitar gently lilts in a folksy 12/8, gushing with a sadness refracted through its minor intervals. Lenker imagines her death leading to something positive, the title itself a kind of pitch-black joke on how, in her parents’ old faith, the best thing that can happen to us is to die.
Lenker has a remarkable ability to alter the timbre of her voice to suit the nature of the character she’s inhabiting in a given song. Take ‘from’, whose contemplative chord sequence and opening admission “no-one can, no-one can, no-one can, be my man” seems to speak of someone who has learned the reality of her place in the world after many trials and errors – her voice falters and wavers as if made frail with age and experience. Every time she sings the word “from”, she glides into a dreamy falsetto that nestles in a soft cloud of distant resonance, as if the very idea of a knowable, meaningful origin is mere fantasy. But compare this to ‘womb’, the first palpably positive-sounding song on the album – her voice is strong clear and high, energised with youth. It’s about, of all things, the power of true love and the hope it brings that nothing else is needed beside it – “My heart will always find you when your heart freely sings, mine would never bind you with a diamond or a word”. Whether you take that youthful timbre as signifying naivety depends upon how cynical you are. On ‘blue and red horses’, she deploys that child-like delivery again to highlight her vulnerability in a manipulative relationship, asking “do you want to toy with me?”
‘out of your mind’, with its fuzz-addled guitar and ripe folksy top-line, is the most similar to Big Thief here. Again, her voice embodies that essence of youth, no cracks or traces of strain. Her chorus melody strays over the bar line as she fondly remembers her lover – “Is it any wonder I get lonesome for you?”. It’s a bittersweet feeling she’s channelling, half-happy, half-sad, and indeed the spectre of past pain that shadows abysskiss can provoke complex emotions, making the moments of optimism all the more precious, and fragile. On ‘cradle’, vulnerable harp-like fingerpicking and muted piano weave their way through a dreamy landscape as Lenker urges us to “cradle more how you feel”; the delicate mixture of positive and negative emotions creates a feeling of conciliation, an acceptance that “earth is born to wound and heal”, that quiet consolation from pain can be found in nature’s majesty and that pain’s concrete inevitability. ‘symbol’ too, with its touching refrain “that smile always makes me well”, is complex, celebrating the healing powers of time and love whilst at the same time recalling that there can be no healing to cherish without the initial wound. The only drawback is that her verses seem to lean rather heavily on ‘Everything In Its Right Place’.
It’s telling for someone with a deeply religious background that Lenker finds more solace in nature than the divine on this record. ‘blue and red horses’ seems to discuss an abusive formative relationship, where angels’ repeated interventions keep going wrong – first making her fall in with the wrong person, then failing to extricate her from the situation. And like on ‘symbol’, on ‘abyss kiss’ it is the natural, rather than supernatural, world where Lenker finds peace – “love is the leaves, in the sky, in the sky”. Her guitar hammer-ons here are indulgently joyous.
The album’s ending is low-key. ‘what can you say’ is the shortest and least distinctive track on the record. It’s sparse and open, but perhaps comes across as less vulnerable than intended after almost twenty-five mintues of only slightly-less fragile music. But to close, ‘10 miles’ imagines Lenker’s death again, mirroring abysskiss’s beginning. It is ominous, speculative as she travels through various fantasy worlds, with Lenker returning to one concrete thought in her chorus – “Jo, nothing is real, but we still have that feel”, once again, perhaps, advising us to focus on the reality of the emotions before us, not what we can comprehend of our external reality or past.
abysskiss does ask a lot of the listener – to pay close attention to the lyrics, situate them in context, and notice the delicate nuances of the music. Without such effort, it can be an oddly passive listen – these songs are reserved, their melodies don’t jump out at you or sear themselves in the memory. But in its quiet, dignified way, it’s a moving album that reminds us that we can always choose our present even if we can’t choose our past.