By the arrival of Big Thief's third album, U.F.O.F. ("UFO friend" per lyrics in the title track), songwriter Adrianne Lenker had established herself as a singular force in indie music, both through two acclaimed albums with her band and with more delicate solo material including 2018's Abysskiss. In the meantime, Big Thief had toured almost constantly between preparing their 2016 debut, Masterpiece, and recording U.F.O.F., all the while becoming more and more tight-knit as a group. Their development is not only evident in differences between 2017's Capacity and 2019's U.F.O.F., but between U.F.O.F. and Abysskiss, as spotlighted on reworked versions of the latter's "From" and "Terminal Paradise." Not merely a fuller arrangement, U.F.O.F.'s "Terminal Paradise" transforms the quietly howling acoustic guitar elegy into a haunted, improvisational song. Without changing the main melody, the band animates lyrics like "See my death become a trail/And the trail leads to a flower" with components including spectral voice samples, rattling sound effects, and fast, sustained strumming. This atmospheric treatment is indicative of a more exploratory album that presents ambient-leaning folk-rock collages that combine voice and noise samples, improvised instruments, and Lenker's naked poetry and brittle vocal performances with structured song. (All bandmembers are credited in the liner notes with "ambience.") The title track's skittering drums, meandering arpeggiated guitars, and humming synths, for instance, create an otherworldly undercurrent for wispily delivered lyrics such as "Like a seed in the wind/She’s taking up root in the sky/See her flickering." Elsewhere, "Orange" is a sparer love song that makes room for lines like "Fragile means that I can hear her flesh/Crying little rivers in her forearm/Fragile is that I mourn her death/As our limbs are twisting in her bedroom." Some of the more remarkable performance choices here include Lenker committing to an eerily low, half-whispered vocal line out of her range on "Betsy," and the screams and guitar distortion on trippy opening track "Contact." Steadily warm and atmospheric despite these more volatile elements, the set also includes the relatively catchy "Century," which has Lenker joined by bandmate Buck Meek on affable vocal harmonies. A foray into artful album rock for the band, U.F.O.F.'s shifts in presentation are subtle and seem wholly organic throughout. It's a record deserving of such an evocative title, which captures its dreamily impressionistic yet unsettling nature.
AllMusic Review by Marcy Donelson