Healing from heartsick with Adrianne Lenker’s ‘songs and instrumentals’

When songs and instrumentals begins we hear Adrianne Lenker fumbling quietly with her guitar, waiting for a beat before she plays her first song. It is as if we have stumbled in, like a curious listener following the sounds to a distant busker who seldom acknowledges the crowd. Nothing is a distraction to Lenker, even the inconveniences found in her recording space: unstable electricity, a lack of running water. Here, in a cabin in the woods, she focuses on healing, and with a guitar and a minimal recording setup, she writes some of her most vulnerable songs.

It was by the pandemic and the fresh wounds of a broken heart that Lenker took refuge in a cabin in Western Massachusetts. She likens the space to the inside of an acoustic guitar, and the sounds it produces brings her joy, beginning and closing each day with an instrumental improvisation that would make up the instrumentals album. Lenker plays openly across the notes of the guitar, luxuriating in its major tonalities, the brightness of the harmonics, the resonance of the bass strings, and how they sound in harmony with the distant chimes. It is clear she enjoys the sole company of her instrument – you can even hear her let out a chuckle, forgetting her pain in these 37 minutes. But throughout songs, she sings to her former partner and grieves for a loss, with the notes reverberating in the emptiness.

At its surface, Lenker’s songs are light and written at ease; her voice a tremulous croon over arpeggiated major chords. The songs rarely deviate from this duet of sounds, each born from similar chord progressions and a torrent of emotion; a lyrical dissonance is at play here, with the major harmonies at odds with intense stories of loss and heartbreak. After almost three weeks spent unloading equipment and another three spent recording, Lenker reached a “whole new level of heartsick” that the handful of songs she had prepared became redundant. She ended up writing nine of the songs freshly during the recording session.

On “anything”, Lenker reminisces the mundane from doing laundry, eating mangoes together and watching the “shoulder of her shirtsleeve slipping”; she details even the microscopic desire to “listen to the sound of you blinking”. The absence of her ex grows stronger throughout, that songs loses focus on her and Lenker converses with emptiness itself: “Oh, emptiness / Tell me ‘bout your nature / Maybe I’ve been getting you wrong” (“zombie girl”). And as the album progresses, she lingers on the guitar as if holding back to withstand the pain (“my angel”), until she completely abandons her voice in the album’s instrumental second half. “I’m starting over,” she says, halfway through instrumentals, and it’s unclear whether she means it to herself or to her listener, but she speaks as if we are right there with her. The intimacy here is almost overwhelming, to the point that you can hear Lenker’s fingertips on the guitar strings, her breath against the microphone and the chimes and the birds surrounding the cabin.

We hear this soundscape in so many albums – it’s not the first time a musician has escaped to a cabin to heal from pain. Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago grew from a frustration with songwriting and life, finding hope in a remote hunting cabin; and with the stress of touring and mounting expectations, Radiohead escaped to an abandoned house in Bath, creating their legendary OK Computer. Each album is born out of self-isolation, of struggling with pain and finding solace in their own company. It’s almost a trope, but the outcome is never trivial. So, with its modest title, songs barely yields attention, as if letting the music speak for itself. Yet it calls like an urge to read a stranger’s journal; they are words that helped her heal, and there’s hope that they can serve as someone else’s source of comfort too.

Favourite Tracks: two reverse, ingydar, anything, zombie girl

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