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Review: “Bright Future” by Adrianne Lenker

Lenker’s sixth solo studio album is a tribute to the beauty and love that comes from spontaneous creativity.
Image by Ava Weinreis
The singer experiments with new instrumentation and sounds, but that experiment doesn’t pay off where it counts.

For her sixth solo studio album, Plymouth, Minnesota-raised indie folk artist Adrianne Lenker did what she does best: create an intimate musical space that makes room for haunting heartache, warm tenderness and all of the messy things in between — and recorded all of it in the forest.

“Bright Future,” which came out on March 22, is a nearly 45-minute tribute to the beauty and love that comes from spontaneous creativity. In an Instagram post the day the album came out, Lenker explained how it grew out of sessions between her and her friend Philip Weinrobe in Oct. 2022. The pair were later joined by musicians Josefin Runsteen, Nick Hakim and Mat Davidson.

“Bright Future” was the result.

“Headphoneless and heart-forward, everyone gave of their love and passion,” Lenker said in the Instagram post.

Lenker’s M.O. is playing with traditional folk and country sounds by experimenting with instrumentation, subject matter, song length and lyricism. It’s seen on “Bright Future” with the introduction of piano and strings alongside more country and bluegrass sounds, all of which were recorded on tape.

The album immediately takes a risk by opening with the six-minute track “Real House.” However, it pays off as Lenker’s familiarly soft, slightly reedy voice cradles the listener and the lyrics unfold like a meditative chant against low, sparse piano. Her voice in this song isn’t very tonally dynamic at all, but its steadiness turns her from an artist distanced from the listener into an involved storyteller.

It doesn’t stick out as an opener as Lenker’s hauntingly solemn send-off of “And then I saw you cry” blends beautifully into the twangy first notes of “Sadness As A Gift,” which aligns with Lenker’s more recognizable crooning style. 

The first half of “Bright Future” is made up of songs more consistent with Lenker’s established style. Coincidentally or not, they’re also more enjoyable.

“Fool” is a short, plucky, driving track about reality crash-landing into fantasy during a breakup and the process of moving on afterward. 

“No Machine” and “Free Treasure” are gentle, heartfelt songs more reminiscent of Lenker’s 2020 album, “songs,” which received “universal acclaim,” according to Metacritic. However, neither track feels directly lifted from “songs,” mostly due to Lenker’s richer vocals and greater production capabilities this time around.

This first half of the album is punctuated by a reworked version of “Vampire Empire,” a longtime fan favorite by Lenker’s band Big Thief that the group released as a single on Oct. 20. The new version leans heavily into bluegrass and away from the agonizing rock of the original. In this way, it fits in better in “Bright Future,” but the raw emotion of the track is greatly reduced. 

Unfortunately, the shortcomings of “Vampire Empire” set up those for the second half of the album. By leaning into new instrumentation, Lenker loses all of the warmth she generated in the first half of “Bright Future,” particularly in the songs “Evol” and the closing track “Ruined.”

Both piano ballads, “Evol” and “Ruined” are experimentations that read as hesitant and awkward, almost painfully self-aware of how different they are. They’re boring, uncomfortable and unsettled and their minor keys render them cold. 

Through these songs, Lenker proves she can’t write cold music. She is a master of warmth, whether it comes from rage or love, which has allowed her to channel intimacy into her music. “Evol” and “Ruined,” in this way, are incredibly isolating.

To the credit of the album’s second half, we see hints of Big Thief’s childlike whimsy, reminiscent of their most recent album “Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You.” 

“Evol” is based entirely around words spelled backward.“Donut Seam” is a silly reworking of the song’s chorus, “Don’t it seem like a good time for swimming / before all the water disappears?” But in the same breath, the harmonization of Lenker and Hakim’s voices is grating and chilling, negating that whimsy.

Lenker has a gift for feeling out the intimacy in all of life’s moments and bringing it to the forefront. She is also no stranger to complexity or sonic and thematic exploration. This is seen through the vignettes of “Real House” and the overall richer sound of “Bright Future.” However, we also see them in the album’s most disappointing songs.

It’s ironic that an album called “Bright Future” ends on such an unsatisfying, dour note.

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