Adrianne Lenker – ‘songs’ and ‘instrumentals’ Album Review

On songs and instrumentals, Adrianne Lenker has captured intramural isolation at a time when it’s soaring within all of us, more than ever before.

Adrianne Lenker settled in to make her next solo record at a time when she least expected. At the very least, none of us expected the year to take a turn the way it has. Lenker was touring with Big Thief in March, but her travels were cut short just as coronavirus took hold, forcing her to flee Europe and return back to the U.S.

Upon arriving in NYC, she thought about what the future had in store for her. There was a cabin for rent in Western Massachusetts, that just so happened to be neighbouring her friends’ property in the woods. With no concrete plan in mind, she hopped in her truck and headed for the mountains.

Over the course of the month, she grew connected to the space, describing the feeling of the one-room cabin as “the body of a guitar”. Lenker’s latest solo adventure was born out of this cabin-in-the-woods setting, resulting in two albums, songs and instrumentals. Both are a celebration of comforting time spent in isolation: an enticing withdrawal from the big bad world, which is lonely and self-reflective at the same time.

adrianne lenker, big thief, songs and instrumentals
Adrianne Lenker grapples with nature on her third solo endeavour. Photo: Genesis Báez

Lenker spent a month confined to the Massachusetts cabin before she called up her long-time friend and engineer, Phil Weinrobe. Armed with only an acoustic guitar and her introspective thoughts, together they pulled together her next solo record. The hollowness of the instrument’s body reverberated off the walls of solitude in a mediative way that made Adrianne delve deeper into her internal world. She began writing feverishly, as ideas flowed with ease throughout the room.

“How’d you like to get outta the city and make a record that sounds like the inside of an acoustic guitar?” Adrianne Lenker called upon Phil Weinrobe when she felt the time was right.

Now, a month in solitude can feel like an eternity. You start losing track of the days, and trust me, your thoughts start to overlap themselves. Your dreams start to creep into the everyday-scape, wandering along the fringes of your loneliness, before confusion eventually sets in.

“I had a handful of songs that I was planning on recording, but by the time Phil arrived I was on a whole new level of heartsick and the songs were flying through my ears. I was basically lying in the dirt half the time,” Lenker described.

Once Weinrobe arrived, the dynamics of the record started to come together. The pair lived a minimal and basic lifestyle, bathing in the nearby creeks and heating up meals by stovetop.

They got into a humble routine, dedicating the beginnings and ends of each day to acoustic improvisations. The second part to the collection, instrumentals, was formulated out of theses meditative acoustic sessions. Side B is structured like a collage, where snippets from each waking hour are crinkle-cut into an allegory of instrumentation.

“I’d like to think that at any time you need or want, you can put on ‘instrumentals’ and have the sensation like a friend is playing guitar to you softly in the room,” Lenker explains.

After nearly three weeks of troubleshooting with electricity and technical mishaps, the pair grappled with the idea of recording the entire double album on an old-school cassette tape. The album was stripped-back as is and the only tape recorder they were armed with was Phil’s battery-powered Sony Walkman.

But just as they were about to accept the situation for what it was, Lenker reached out to a friend who delivered an Otari 8 Track out of storage. songs and instrumentations were, thus recorded on analogue-analogue-analogue (AAA), without any digital interferences. Nine of the eleven tracks to songs were written during these isolated sessions.

Lenker’s third solo endeavour is a celebration of one’s relationship with nature – while also an exploration of the confusion and emptiness that comes with seeking out and establishing it. It’s rough around the edges, yet smooth and gentle in a way that feels like you’re warming to a place that isn’t your own.

Birds chirp in the background of zombie girl as Lenker yearns for explanations. She grapples with misunderstanding in relationships: “What’s on your mind? Maybe I’ve been getting you wrong”, she muses, as she covers you with questions. When really, there is no explanation to them at all.

The vibrant cover art blanketing both songs and instrumentals are a splatter of watercolours that convey the beauty and impenetrability of the natural world. Crafted by Adrianne’s grandmother, Diane Lee, it’s clear that creativity transitions gracefully through the family line. Butterflies disguised as flowers flutter below the canopy of the music, fleeting and ready to disappear into the ether at any given moment. These artworks hold a sentimental value that pairs beautifully with the fragility of Lenker’s voice, before travelling through the body of her guitar and into space.

andrianne lenker songs instrumentals
The artwork for ‘songs’.

Adrianne Lenker sounds different when she’s isolated from the rest of her Big Thief band. Buck Meek’s eerie guitar weavings aren’t there to compliment her growls, and James Krivchenia’s absent drum beats don’t hold the tempo together like a lattice. Yet, Lenker still manages to transport us in a way that makes us want to wail even more. And, there’s a sense of newfound intimacy to these songs.

“We wanted to make a record that put you, the listener, in the most intimate position possible,” Phil Weinrobe explains.

Lenker wobbles through songs with hesitation, channelling the insider in every way possible. She’s confined to just her thoughts and the hollow body of her acoustic, almost alone in a one-room cabin in the woods during the middle of a pandemic. There’s feeling inside that she wants to get off her chest, with lyrical underlays that examine both human interaction and separation.

The closing track, my angel, has been built up over the course of the record brilliantly. We almost feel Adrianne tremble, as her emotions flow out of her mouth then back inside her instrument, before settling into the cabin walls like a cushion. Just as you start disappearing into your own internal space, the track comes to an abrupt closure. It’s isolation itself: gripping you with comfort at first, and then dumping you in a void of loneliness.

If Bon Iver‘s Justin Vernon pioneered the intertwinement of sound and solitude on For Emma, Forever Ago, Adrianne Lenker has captured intramural isolation at a time when it’s soaring within all of us, more than ever before.


songs and instrumentals are both out tomorrow, pre-order your copies here.