There are few singer-songwriters who can claim a more prolific peak creative period than Adrianne Lenker’s past five years. Since 2016, she’s helmed four albums with her band Big Thief as well as several solo outings, including her informatively-titled recent twin releases Songs and Instrumentals. Like Neil Young in the mid-early Seventies, each one of Lenker’s personal peaks, be it 2017’s tour de force Capacity, or 2019’s ethereal U.F.O.F., turns out to be yet another stepping stone towards something revelatory.
Songs is Lenker’s second traditional solo album since rising to indie stardom with Big Thief. Unlike the skeletal meandering of her last solo album, 2018’s Abysskiss, which contained a haunting, if occasionally closed off, beauty, Lenker’s latest is a razor-focused collection, unsparing in its naked vulnerability and unceasing in its steady supply of her trademark sing-song nursery rhyme schemes. Recorded entirely by herself on acoustic guitar, Lenker’s latest batch of originals feel mined from the past three quarters of a century of strumming sing-alongs: “How your words ring through,” Lenker sings over a gentle “Mr. Tambourine Man” melody halfway through on “Zombie Girl,” “something kinda sweet and blue.”
Songs is being billed as a breakup album, and it surely is that, with Lenker processing her own heart-poking memories in real time. She’s hardly the first person to escape to a cabin to record a bunch of sad songs after a relationship gone sour, but you wouldn’t know it from her latest record, the best moments of which feel so piercing and immediate that they feel like Lenker is discovering the concept of a breakup album for herself in real time. On “Anything,” she luxuriates in the bad memories as much as the sweet ones: “I wanna sleep in your car when you’re driving,” she whispers, “lay in your lap when I’m crying.”
But the album is also much more than a gathering of straightforward heartbreak ballads. “Half Return” finds Lenker once again on the type of dark midwestern road trip she once took on Big Thief’s 2017 breakthrough “Shark Smile.” The chorus finds her happening upon an important front yard from her past, and the memories flood back accordingly: “Honey in your mouth when you gave me my name,” she sings over a looping sing-song melody, “tears in your eyes when you pull it like a chain.” Painful memories are twirling around in Lenker’s head on Songs. It’s an album that lives up to it’s name by capturing the basic, natural truth of her art.