Adrianne Lenker Crafts an Authentic Response to Heartbreak

Adrianne Lenker releases a new album which is her third solo project.


Adrianne Lenker releases a new album which is her third solo project.

After a prolific year as the front woman of Big Thief, Adrianne Lenker returns with her third solo project, “songs.” The album is the product of what has come to be an indie music cliché: a post-breakup escape to a cabin in the woods. Despite her perhaps exhausted backdrop, Lenker delivers a collection of gentle folk songs that are both sonically intimate and unabashedly honest about what it means to lose someone you love.

Nearly every track on the album consists exclusively of Lenker’s delicate, yet resilient vocals, her complex guitar picking, and some variety of understated percussion. Although constant in this minimalism, the songs are rarely sparse and never wanting for additional instrumentation. In a recent interview with Pitchfork, Lenker stated that her rented cabin-turned-recording-studio felt like “the inside of an acoustic guitar.” In many ways, the sonic textures of the album adapt to this description: the guitar is close-up and rich, as if the listener were inside it. Paired with Lenker’s vocals, this forms an intricate duet, acting as far more than mere background support.

The tone of warmth and closeness in “songs” extends to Lenker’s physical setting, allowing the listener to hear the sounds of her own material world. Birdsong, the buzz of a bee, and the sound of shifting chairs pepper the album. In “come,” we hear over a minute of soft rain matched with a slowly plucked guitar. “Forwards beckon rebound” begins with Lenker experimentally layering her guitar, responding, “Woah, that’s cool,” after it cuts out. Rather than feeling like gimmicks, these brief extensions and asides make for a more authentic atmosphere for the tracks to dwell in. Lenker concerns herself not with a highly polished and pristine product but with music that exhibits a sense of concrete location in the corporeal.

Lenker’s lyrics in “songs” complement this aural realism we find woven throughout the album. Though they are frequently surreal (on “ingydar” she sings, “His eyes are blueberries, video screens/Minneapolis schemes and dried flowers/from books half-read), they draw their images and emotions from the innate world of memory. Lenker recalls the “Mango in your mouth, juice dripping” in “anything,” and later, “Dog’s white teeth slice right into my fist/Drive to the ER and you put me on my wrist.” The song builds around these vivid and personal moments as Lenker’s wistful but not at all sentimental guitar playing intertwines itself into the story. An air of genuine emotion hangs about the candid anecdotes that fill “songs;” their specificity and focus suggest origins in true individual experience.

Nearly every track of “songs” explores the burden of loss and its absolute inevitability. Having written and recorded the album soon after her own breakup with artist Indigo Sparke, Lenker’s words and melodies carry the weight of regret and cynicism. In the opening song, “two reverse,” Lenker asks, “Is it a crime to say/I still need you?” as she stretches and twists the syllables of her query. Following an overwhelming heartbreak, she wonders about the implications of remaining dependent on someone who is now purposely absent from her life. “Zombie girl” reveals she cannot evade the desire for this person she so loved: “Then the next night/Dreaming I could feel your skin/But the dream escaped so easily.”

Despite Lenker’s emotional suffering, there is no resentment in her lyrics or bitterness in her voice. She is well-aware that injury of the heart is a fundamental condition of the human experience. She sings in “dragon eyes,” “As we make love make love and you’re on my skin/You are changing me, you are changing.” Lenker understands that love necessitates transformation, and that transformation can push lovers apart. With “ingydar,” she suggests that even if lovers can remain together temporarily, death will separate them in the end: “Everything eats and is eaten/Time is fed.” If all love is doomed, why then, has Lenker made an album about her yearning for it?

“songs” is Adrianne Lenker’s attempt to present her reality, the beauty it holds, the tender memories of the past, and the unavoidable presence of pain and unfulfilled desire. Though she knows loss is the preordained end of love, she refuses to relinquish the memories of what was once good in her life. “I just wanna place with you,” she continues in “dragon eyes,” “I just wanna place.” She strives still for normalcy, for unity and reconciliation. Perhaps through the gorgeous melodies and masterful lyrics of “songs,” Lenker is telling us that all love, even love lost, love designated to fail, is worth singing about.