Believing in the dragon

One year later, Big Thief’s fifth album still has profound power


Courtesy of Pitchfork

“Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You” still retains the impact it had at its release, writes James Watson

James Watson, Life Editor

I remember where I was when the first missiles came screaming down at Kyiv, Ukraine. The days and weeks leading up to Feb. 24, 2022 were strange — uneven. Russia had amassed a sizable military presence along the border of Ukraine, and common speculation suggested war was knocking on their door. 

Thanks to a robust western intelligence apparatus, the apparent occupation force was thoroughly documented by satellite photography. The satellites captured the pre-war buildup as a series of maps and grids, full of tiny black squares and little green men. For months, the world could only interpret the world through lines and dots — for a lot of people, it probably didn’t feel real. 

Nevertheless, the prospect of a European land war was deeply frightening to the world.

I’m deeply haunted by this time in ways I don’t fully understand yet. A particularly vivid memory is a dinner between my friend Max and me. We discussed the intelligence community assessments and the prospect of a new European land war. Neither of us was the expert we would like to have been — at least not yet — but it was our understanding that this conflict was arriving within the next week. A violent, inescapable change was swirling, and we could sense it. 

Adding to this anxiety and tumult was the social upheaval I would soon confront as a high school senior three months out from graduation. The simple, domestic notion of graduation is nothing compared to the brutal and illegal occupation of a peaceful country, but this is simply to say that everything felt weird and generally bad. Then, American indie rock outfit Big Thief’s 2022 album “Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You” arrived just a little more than a week before the tanks rolled across the border. 

A year later, the Ukraninans have put up a surprising counteroffensive. I am now a reasonably well-adjusted freshman at Wake Forest, and I confidently say the album was one of the most life changing and life-affirming pieces of art I’ve ever known — it found me when I most needed it.  

The American folk-rock group Big Thief has been a big name in indie music for the last five years. A particular favorite among both critics and festival goers alike, the Brooklyn musicians carved out a near-perfect four-album run prior to 2022’s double album. Bandmates Adrianne Lenker, Buck Meek, Max Oleartchik and James Krivchenia have a tight, familial dynamic that radiates through their music. It’s rare that a band sounds so interpersonally harmonious. 

Their music is the music of warm smiles, hugs, friendsgivings, self-love and intricately-curated playlists. But it’s also heartbreak, trauma and reconciliation. Their sonic and thematic versatility is a weapon, and they know how to use it. Songs like “Mythological Beauty” off their excellent 2017 LP “Capacity” emphasize their emotional resonance and melodic, moody excellence. Their reinvention of the folk-rock tradition has established them as one of the most important, preeminent American music groups of the late 2010s. 

Music critic Steven Hyden famously employs a five-album test to measure the greatness of a band. That is, if the band is able to produce five great albums consecutively, they prove themselves to be in a whole new tier of greatness. While not a perfect test — notably Bob Dylan does not pass the Hyden test despite his on-record love for Dylan’s work — it is particularly helpful in analyzing modern output in (relative) real-time. 

For Big Thief, who put out five, full-length albums in six years (not to mention lead singer Adrianne Lenker’s own solo efforts) this test is especially revealing. The arrival of “Dragon,” album number five, was a big deal. Pitchfork awarded it a coveted “Best New Music” stamp alongside a sweet, sweet 9.0. Hyden gave it a gushing review in which he gave it the five-album stamp of approval. Big Thief was already great, but now they were unquestionably and cosmically great. 

The singles fell into my lap sometime in January. But as someone who treasures the “album experience,” I was weary to give them my full attention until the full sprawl was available.

As soon as the first words floated out of Adrianne Lenker — “Change, like the wind, like the water, like skin” — I knew I had been seen. As the tracklist slowly opened up and let me in, the full tapestry of noise and poetry came into focus. Then there was the cacophonic jangle of “Flower of Blood” — a song that ended up being the most played of the year. 

The ominous electronic crunch of “Blurred View,” the earnest twang of “Spud Infinity,” the anthemic buzz of “Little Things,” the lo-fi, compressed drone of “Wake Me Up to Drive,” it was all there — a grand canonization of genre, sound and tradition. Every song was just as idiosyncratic and affecting as the next. 

In creating this project, Big Thief had recalled echoes of great double albums of the past: Pavement’s quirky sonic smorgasbord “Wowee Zowee” or The Beatles’ colloquially titled “White Album,” for instance. Just as John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr had done in 1968 — stretching the “album” into a self-reflexive, postmodern sandbox with which to experiment and play — Big Thief had done it again 54 years later. 

READ: Adam Coil’s review of “Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You” in the Old Gold & Black’s August 2022 review of music.

I was in love with music in a way I hadn’t felt since letting the needle drop for the first time on my worn-out copy of Bob Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks.” Or perhaps not since hearing “The Lion King” soundtrack when I was four. Just as the critical response had suggested, they were indeed unquestionably and cosmically great. 

This music was tender and evocative. It felt passed down — like I had inherited a sacred text. Emotionally, something latched onto me. To me, the title track “Change” serves as the thesis for the rest of the text. While not a clearly thematically cohesive work, “Change” underscored both the message of the entire record and the very thing I needed to hear — it was going to be okay. 

I gravitated toward a particular line on the seemingly out-of-place hoedown “Spud Infinity.” Lenker proclaims, “When I say infinity I mean now, kiss the one you are right now, kiss your body up and down except your elbows…” The message of recognizing the person you currently are and loving yourself for it resounded deeply. It echoed a profound, elemental love. Love for yourself, the warmth of others’ love and a love for life itself. 

I find more and more that I need to believe in the dragon. I need to be content with how life’s river flows and how love fluctuates and bends. How it hurts and how it triumphs — all of it. And above all, being content with sharing and embracing it. I’m proud of the person I have become only in the nine months since graduation. I’m a better person for believing in the dragon. 

 Indeed, that spring brought many changes both at home and abroad. The war swirled in Europe and the death toll mounted in Ukraine. Additionally, one of my best friends lost her dad, a compassionate bastion of the community who was loved by all who knew him. Exactly a month later, I graduated high school — formally closing that chapter of my life. 

I spent my final weeks and months at home spending time with many people who wouldn’t follow me into this current chapter of my life — we were saying goodbye and I didn’t even know  it. I’m still grieving and working through this. When I consider the emotional cost of this transition, I find myself turning back to “Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You” for comfort and wisdom like it’s scripture. It re-centers me, assuring me that I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be. 

I’m not often comfortable doing this type of heart-on-sleeve writing, and perhaps I should work on that given I’m partly responsible for the section that publishes essays like this. But as the title of the album suggests, I find more and more that I need to believe in the dragon. I need to be content with how life’s river flows and how love fluctuates and bends. How it hurts and how it triumphs — all of it. And above all, being content with sharing and embracing it. I’m proud of the person I have become only in the nine months since graduation. I’m a better person for believing in the dragon. 

“I believe in you, Even when you need to Recoil, When the topsoil Is kicking up into the storm And the dust goes dancing And a billion planets are born I believe in you”