Album Review: songs by Adrianne Lenker
Cover Art: Alex Chen
I listened to songs by Adrianne Lenker all the way through every day for at least a month after I first heard it — suffice to say it’s an incredible piece of music. To be fair, I am slightly biased in its favor: a wondrously sad, lyrically rich, folk album — it’s the perfect recipe for an album that I am guaranteed to adore. However, the beauty of Lenker’s songwriting is universal and is a must-listen for fans of any genre.
Listening to songs was like coming inside from the cold, freezing, and being wrapped in a warm blanket — a slightly oxymoronic feeling well-coupled with the album’s juxtaposed yet intrinsically linked themes: life and death, loss and memory, solitude and comfort, heartbreak and love. Listening to songs is like being swept into the mind of someone else for 37 minutes and letting her way of musical interpretation mesh itself into your own. It’s like lying on your back, looking up at the stars.
It is one of the most beautifully poetic albums I’ve listened to in a long time, in ways that don’t always make perfect sense to me as a listener but clearly hold meaning to Lenker. While talking about her use of words for the album on a reddit AMA, Lenker said, “I think the textures and sounds of words and the way they feel are equally as important as the actual meanings.” This idea permeates each song, with lines like “Candescent insects/Crosses and fishnecks” and “Evergreen anodyne decompounding” that clearly hold literal meaning, but whose pure emotion — separate from their meanings — hold equally as much importance to the song.
Let me walk you through the tracks:
Fittingly, the first song “two reverse” sets the tone for the whole album. It is instrumentally rather simple — Lenker singing with her guitar and a maraca — and yet it draws you in: hearing her fingers brush over the strings, a time signature that weaves in and out, sweeping you along the song, topped off by the crinkling sound of rain right near the end of the track. The lyrics feel deeply emotional, and yet they’re almost nonsensical: she calls for a lost loved one to lie to her, proceeds to describe the changing colors of a sky reflecting off of a river, jumps to asking her grandmother for wisdom, and then describes her home as two rivers that have reversed back to meet one another. The images are fleeting and clearly strung together, but in a way that feels like you could only fully understand if you were Lenker herself. To put it concisely, it is a song that makes you lose yourself in thought.
“ingydar” almost instantly became my favorite song on the album upon first listen. The melody is simple, rising and falling like a tide, but swept along by Lenker’s haunting vocals and the captivating counter-rhythms played on guitar. Not to mention the not-quite-creepy yet still unsettling lyrics paint a picture of death (more accurately the cycle of life) in the most interesting way I’ve ever heard. It is named after her great-aunt’s horse who passed away, and while she begins singing about Ingydar’s death, by the end of the song it is about Lenker’s own death and death in general. The closest thing to a chorus in this song is one lyric repeated again and again: “Everything eats and is eaten, time is fed.” This line encompasses the expansive grief and comfort of the song as a whole; we live for a moment in time, and to do so we must kill other things that were once living — and in the end, the same will happen to us. There is a cyclical trajectory to time that is impossible to stop, pangingly sad but hopeful all at once.
Much of this album’s inspiration comes from a rather recent breakup of Lenker’s, which is most clear with the song “anything.” Again, a simple sung melody with a beautiful guitar instrumental, this song goes through a photo projector’s whirl of images with her ex-girlfriend. The lyrics are grippingly intimate — she sings softly about hanging her girlfriend’s jeans from a laundry line, fighting with her mother, kissing her eyes, laying in her lap while crying, and listening to the sound of her blinking. The song does not flit through solely happy memories; instead it focuses on visceral ones, reaching a heart-wrenching peak as Lenker sings, “Weren’t we the stars in Heaven...Didn’t you believe in me?” which is then lightened at the end of the song by her letting out a relieved “Wooh!” as the guitar fades out.
“forwards beckon rebound” begins with a very short outtake, followed by Lenker muttering, “Woah, that’s cool,” after which the song truly starts. The lyrics speak of two sides of the same coin — the good and the bad in life — with poetically metaphorical musings. Some notable lyrics include, “Wind that howls like a hound/Wind that laughs like a clown,” “Stabbing stars through my back,” and “Villain and violent, infant and innocent.” The lyrics are steeped in nature, and her own unique way of viewing the world shines through. When combined with the chugging-along feeling of the instrumental (provided by its compound meter), the whole song feels quite like being swirled into her mind’s eye.
With “heavy focus,” the rhythm of the guitar slows down a bit, making the song feel less surging and demanding of your attention than the others on the album. Instead, it feels slower, more boiled down, and sweet. Lenker sings about the feeling of an all-consuming love for someone: focusing all your energy and senses on them, retaining a memory as best as you can. Sweet and relatably palatable imagery, like having sweaty palms when first meeting someone, is punctuated by her likening her fear of losing this person to being in a gun store, or in a cemetery at night.
“half return” is about the sensation of revisiting your childhood home, or really any place you were once familiar with which is now primarily memory, and nearly completely reverting back to who you were during that part of your life. The chorus goes: “Standing in the yard, dressed like a kid/The house is white, and the lawn is dead.” The song is filled with soft, subtle lines which are interrupted by less placid pieces of imagery, demonstrating the pleasant yet unsettling tone of Lenker’s album.
“come” is one of the most emotional songs on the album, told from the perspective of a dying mother pleading with her daughter to help her die and reassuring her that everything will be okay. The story is told lovingly, opening with rain splashing on a roof, the creaking sound of the chair Lenker is sitting in, and slowly plucked individual notes on the guitar. As it transitions into a more traditionally-styled instrumental (one with more consistent chords and rhythm than ambiance), Lenker’s voice warbles breathily above the strings and you can hear her fingers sliding across the frets, giving the whole song a wholly vulnerable quality.
“zombie girl” sends shivers across my skin every time I listen to it; it glitters with birdsong and wind chimes in the background and a softly plucked guitar line as Lenker sings of two dreams she had two nights in a row. The first is about a moment of sleep paralysis: a zombie girl crouching by her bed, leaving her feeling empty and terrified. The second is a beautiful dream about a person of her mind’s creation she fell in love with whom she woke up without. Both dreams represent the loneliness that she fears most deeply, and the song ends with her crying out “What’s on your mind?” on repeat as the guitar gets quieter, leaving a warm but empty feeling in its wake.
The title of “not a lot, just forever” stems from the idea of very small actions recurring an infinite number of times. For example, in the chorus she sings, “Like the rock bears the weather” to indicate how wind and waves chip away at a rock ever so slightly over time, eventually turning it to sand. The song is hauntingly beautiful, countermelodies repeating throughout like a cool breeze blowing across your mind. It is currently my favorite song on the album. Truth be told, many of the lyrics in this song that I’m hopelessly obsessed with I don’t know the meaning of. She sings in the third verse, “I want to be your wife/so I hold you to my knife.” In the fourth verse, “So I bash around the house/The poison stains my mouth/She comes/I let her.” The contrasting passivity, danger, violence, and romance in these lyrics is captivating, and feels like — much like the entire album — an open doorway into Lenker’s mind; you see furniture in passing but aren’t invited to go in and understand their placements.
“dragon eyes” is the first song on the album that I heard — it came out as a single about a month before the release of this album. It feels almost lullaby-esque, with fleeting imagery of stars in the summer and flowers in a vase. She speaks most vividly about the desire to build a life with a partner and her own worries about doing things wrong — both for her partner and for herself. She sits at the edge of their bed and mulls over the things she’s said to them, hoping she’s not changing nor taming them or herself with her wish to find a place for the two of them to live together.
The last track on the album, “my angel,” recounts the near-death experience of falling off a cliff and then being rescued by a guardian-angel-like figure. It focuses on the absurdity and pain of the situation of nearly dying and seeing this mystical person, but also on the joy of life. The majority of the song is purely instrumental; it sweeps you under with the guitar until Lenker begins singing softly. It feels like being lulled into security as she repeats “my angel” until the song cuts out suddenly, leaving you in shock — rushed with abrupt silence in your ears and the urge to play it again.
The entire album, if not made glaringly obvious by those song descriptions, is woefully personal. The majority of the songs were written over the span of quarantine in a cabin in Massachusetts that Lenker was living in. The entire thing is recorded in analog as opposed to digitally, and you can hear the sounds of her home around her. Its slight imperfections in sound are what makes the album feel all the more like home. Some bits of the songs are played with a paintbrush on the strings of her guitars — it is very purely her and feels like it.
A quote from that same reddit AMA of Lenker’s in reference to life, in general, encapsulates the feelings expressed by this album: “The ability to perceive the messages of the natural world with senses [feels like the biggest gift on earth]. A sunrise didn’t have to be so beautiful and an orange didn’t have to be so sweet, but somehow they are, and that’s what it’s all about.”
songs is an album I hold near and dear. I’m not really one to give albums a rating, but if I had to, this album is a 9.5/10. It is a masterpiece that I could and will happily listen to forever.
Additionally, while not brought up in this review, I would be remiss to not make note of the fact that songs was released as a double album with instrumentals — two pieces without any singing. It is also a beautiful album and they work wonderfully in tandem, but that is for a different article to get into.