Breakup albums come in many forms. Some yearn for the lost lover, and describe a world that doesn’t function without their other half. Some, like from the likes of Taylor Swift, focus on a more self-affirming way of getting over a lost love. An ex-lover or significant other, usually when the relationship didn’t last years, can be used as a stepping stone for a grand augmentation of self-love.
Songs, a solo album by Adrianne Lenker of Big Thief fame, reflects on this post-breakup limbo in a unique way. The recording of this album, specifically, reflects the manner in which Lenker intended to remove herself from the intensity of life, relationships and touring in favor of a slowed pace. Big Thief, having gained much traction as a genre-defining indie act, had been on the move constantly since their inception, often touring to promote their music. This was to great effect, as their two 2019 albums, U.F.O.F and Two Hands, were received glowingly by critics.
After a divorce with fellow Big Thief member Buck Meek in 2018 and a breakup with singer/songwriter Indigo Sparke in 2020, Lenker expressed the need for a change. Choosing to relegate herself to a cabin, living alone for the most part, with visits from sound engineers, the tracks are sonically saturated with the creaks and moans of the forest. Rain can be heard on several tracks, and the rasping chairs are audible behind Lenker’s guitar. In her words, “Any nature sounds that you hear… were just the sounds from within the cabin that happened to be going on at the time” (GQ, 2020). An important consideration is that this album was recorded on a binaural mic, with a four-track recorder, as can be heard on the beginning of “Forwards, Beckon, Rebound”. The layering of binaural sounds gives an incredibly immersive quality to the sparkly and twanging guitar riffs which make up the instrumentation of this album.
As a jumping off point to the album, “Ingydar”, the second track, sets the tone of the album. “Everything eats and is eaten”, she sings. Many of the tracks on this album reflect the idea of cyclical action taking place within linear time, a repetition of events which coexists with the human experience. “Without that death, without that loss, nothing would be as we know it, and all of the things that we love and appreciate about life couldn’t exist. If there was no such thing as death, there would also probably be no such thing as grandmothers and babies and puppies and seasons” (GQ, 2020). Ultimately, she asserts through both her words here and alongside her guitar on Songs, that love is essentially impossible without loss. It is a guaranteed fact that the things we believe to be the most valuable will come to an end.
This album is not meant to uplift the listener, or probably the artist. “Anything” reflects a yearning for her lover, painfully expressed through lines from the chorus such as “I don’t want to talk about anything… I wanna kiss, kiss your eyes again”. She even mentions the name of her ex-girlfriend, Indigo, near the end of the song: “I was scared Indigo, but I wanted to”, she croons. The truth is with all loss, a longing comes afterwards. The world of Songs that Lenker creates takes the difficulty and complexity of accepting that a part of your life has left and exchanges it for the simplicity of cyclical nature.
“Zombie Girl”, probably my favorite track on the album, dives further into this cycle of grief. Though the messages of repetition and inevitability can help listeners feel as though the challenges they experience will eventually pass, there are more steps the to process than can be included in that sentiment. “Oh emptiness… maybe I’ve been getting you wrong”, she sings, pinpointing a very specific point in the healing process. While emptiness can surely follow a breakup or any other loss, the idea that at some point, we must reconcile ourselves with that emptiness resonates very deeply with me. Emptiness, at its core, is not a negative thing, but rather completely neutral. “I cover you with questions… I cover you with music”, she continues, giving listeners a window into her coping mechanisms.
This album signifies a movement towards maturity, acceptance, and the existence of a personal philosophy that echoes through the ears of listeners the same way it did the cabin walls. Many other albums that deal with similar situations or experiences may make listeners feel as though there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Lenker argues, through her toned-down and rippling melodies, that perhaps life is one continuous tunnel of grief, bathed in the light of respite and happiness the whole way through.