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Adrianne Lenker - "Abysskiss" | Album Review


by Dylan Pennell (@dylan_pennell)

Adrianne Lenker released a solo album this past fall. Did you know that? Oh, you did. Hmmm. It’s really good. Oh, shit. You knew that too.

No, wait. I’ve got it. So, this record is really good, right? It made a bunch of year-end lists (including ours). But, here we are, kinda after the fact, so what is there to say about a record that’s already been reviewed (to death), subsequently championed by the kings of cool, and then found its way into the same pile of ashes that every other great record has found itself since the streaming era began.  

Guess what though? This record, even a football-field away from its release, even with the simultaneous veneration and deposition with which year-end lists treat the prestigious, this album is STILL worth talking about.

And here is why: Adrianne Lenker has got the goods. Plain and simple.

Unlike some of her peers, cozying up to the warm hearth of folk-rock and the recent progressively-minded narrative kindling that has given us so many beautiful records in the past three years, the beauty of Lenker’s voice is tethered to the wasteland of a world she paints in her lyrics. Fittingly, the wasteland isn’t filled with the same scrap heaps and Orwell-hocking horseshit that accounts for most YA fiction these days, but rather Lenker’s worldview is littered with the detritus of human pain, in all of its mild and humiliating glory.

As a member of Big Thief, Lenker’s songs whisper seethingly into their pillow about rabid men, split lips, and the humbling and painful role that we each play in serving our worst demons, internally and externally. Though their two albums are full band efforts, and sound as such, even the more pop-leaning elements carry the weight of Lenker’s words and the harrowing authority of her crookedly-haunted vocal delivery, cracking like dry lips and bleeding like a contumacious boxer ferociously unwilling to go down.

Looking at the tracklisting alone feels a little queasy - the paradoxically titled “terminal paradise” and the somehow-completely-discomfortingly titled “womb” somehow manage to have more impact than most album’s do even after listening their entirety. The aesthetic of the album too, while quiet, and seemingly demure, is truly anything but. Sure, the more luscious arrangements of Big Thief are gone, but whatever warmth there is to be found in hearing Lenker on her own with a guitar is almost entirely betrayed by the frostiness of her stories and the abject horror permeating her narrative voice.

Despite the lifetime’s worth of releases that Lenker has accrued since her teenage debut, this feels like a coming out party of sorts, minus the party and the sexuality-revealing connotation. Lenker herself admits as much in the opening track, the aforementioned “terminal paradise,” in which the listener is greeted by the familiar and loving plucks of an acoustic guitar before being tossed into the abyss of Lenker’s world: “Screaming in the fields as I was born.” Recounting her own horrific version of “Thanatopsis,” the language throughout the song, reaffirming redemption in death, can’t outrun that opening image and the horror that the narrator feels in life itself.  

In fact, “the return” as a narrative device is something that this album seems to *ahem* return to again and again. First tethered by the album’s aesthetic, an ostensibly cliched “back-to-basics” approach, which still manages to read as anything but cliche, this idea of returning to something is right there in the title too: abysskiss, which stands not only as a winningly Faulkner-esque means of describing the pitfalls of love and sex, but also a contradiction depicting the duality of life and death, two things that may be less opposites than two sides of the same coin.  

“from” and “womb” continue to evolve this motif, the former evoking similarly dread-inducing imagery to that of the lead track, but this time the narrator doesn’t beg for return so much as protection from an unnamed horror and a solitude that the world can’t be bothered to afford her. “Womb” does manage to grant our narrator some respite as they find some comfort in the love of another woman, recalling the feeling of falling asleep against a lover’s stomach.

Whether it’s a life returning to death, a lover to another, a relationship to solitude (as on “symbol”), Lenker seems fascinated with the passions that maintain human vitality and the same impulses which allow us all to sink deeper. Into sorrow. Into life. Into sex. For the world she has constructed on this album, the horror and beauty of death is intermingled with the horror and beauty of life, each terrifying and mesmerizingly beautiful in equal measure.  

Which brings us back to the point that here we are, months after the release of this album, even now leading up to the release of a new Big Thief record, one that’s been preceded by the release of “UFOF,” another song brazenly taken with the idea of returning. Not only that, but it’s one of the most fully arranged songs of their career, so where does this leave abysskiss? Standing as a reminder of the singularity of Lenker’s narrative milieu and a stunning reminder of her prolificacy, her strength, and her voice, starker than ever, and the ways in which she continues to mine it, perennially toeing the sharp edge of the knife, the line between horror and beauty.