Fenne Lily opens her third album with a confrontation:
“I never asked you to change and you’re treating me like I did
the more I’m thinking about it, maybe I should’ve started”
At odds with the UK-born, New York-based artist’s dulcet delivery, this acerbic assessment of an intimate situation sets the tone for her new album perfectly. From the first line to the last, Big Picture finds Fenne seeking clarity in the uncertain; comfort in the uncomfortable.
A gorgeous and gripping portrait of Fenne’s last two years, Big Picture was rarely easy for its author to produce but its contents offer a brilliant catharsis. Started haltingly after a period of writer's block, the songs that would make up her latest work were pieced together over the course of the pandemic, in an effort to self-soothe. “Writing this album was my attempt at bringing some kind of order to the disaster that was 2020,” Fenne states. “By documenting the most vulnerable parts of that time, I felt like I reclaimed some kind of autonomy.”
Though its creation took place amid personal and global turmoil, the ruminative yet candid Big Picture is Fenne’s most cohesive, resolute work to date, both lyrically and sonically. “This isn’t a sad album — it’s about as uplifting as my way of doing things will allow,” she says. “These songs explore worry and doubt and letting go, but those themes are framed brightly. There’s a sadness to the temporary nature of things, but that can be soothing, too.” Like whispered assurances that seemingly unanswerable questions will someday resolve themselves, each track provides an insight into Fenne’s ever-changing view of love and, ultimately, its redefinition — love as a process, not something to be lost and found.
Notably, these 10 songs are Fenne’s first and only to have been written over the course of a relationship; 2018’s On Hold and 2020’s BREACH both confront the pain of retrospection, saying goodbye to a love that’s gone. Big Picture does the exact opposite — rooted firmly in the present, it traces the narrative of two people trying their hardest not to implode, together. With confidence and quiet strength, the album delineates the phases of love and becomes a map of comfort vs claustrophobia.
This sentiment is mirrored by the album’s cover art; constructed on a miniature scale by the artist Thomas Doyle, the scene shows the collapse of a home confined within a bell jar and features several inch-high models of Fenne in various places throughout. This physical representation of a self-contained disaster encapsulates the feeling of walls closing in around you, while simultaneously acting as a reminder that we are small in the grand scheme of things which, for Fenne, is a relief: “We only really know the one world we find ourselves in at any given time” Fenne expands. “It’s only when that world changes or collapses that we realize there are other narratives available — that we’ve known only one of many possible ways to exist.”
After writing Big Picture in the solitude of her Bristol flat, Fenne consciously aimed to make the recording process her most collaborative thus far. Together with her touring band, the group set about playing each song through “every possible way” before teaming up with Brad Cook (Waxahatchee, Kevin Morby, Snail Mail) at his Durham studio. Co-producing alongside Brad, Fenne’s core intention was to make something that sonically reflected the kind of compact space the songs were written in; something warm, honest and comforting. With the bulk of the album tracked live in just a few days (with the exception of its penultimate track “Red Deer Day,” produced by Fenne and Christian Lee Hutson) and the final product mixed by Melina Duterte of Jay Som, Big Picture was transformed from a solitary venture into a unifying collaboration, something that “celebrates the quiet, sweet parts of the last couple of years while recognising the weight of it all.”
This collision of repose and harsh reality is laid bare in the album’s first single “Lights Light Up,” an insightful account of love at its temporary best. Written partially as a conversation, it tracks the tender details of a burgeoning relationship while at the same time recognising the transitory nature of any shared thing; the bittersweet truth that you can only walk hand in hand with someone as long as you’re going in the same direction. With delicately interwoven guitar lines, propulsive rhythm and a chorus that offers the feeling of a voicemail left by someone from your past, it feels at once deeply personal and universal.
Elsewhere, “Dawncolored Horse” provides an uplifting meditation on the freedom that comes with closeness. Taking its title from a poem by Richard Brautigan, Fenne comments that she interprets the poem (and the song it inspired) to be a reflection of the idea that another person can become almost a sentient space in which to exist: “(Brautigan) talks about the woman he loves as being a ‘breathing castle’. I truly don’t know what that means but for me he’s distilled a feeling of absolute closeness. When you know someone so well it feels like you’re almost living inside them. That can be claustrophobic,” she adds, “but before it’s too much, it’s incredible.”
In one of the album’s more delicate moments, the achingly introspective “In My Own Time” paints a scene of insulated intimacy tinged with a fear that life is passing by all too quickly. With lines like “sometimes I feel like I’m just killing time here / or maybe it’s killing me,” Fenne moves through the myriad frames of mind associated with a fading or changing identity. As tender harmonies accompany lush guitar lines, she reflects on a period of being “simultaneously sheltered from and crushed by a fear of the future,” examining her conflicted feelings about a smaller, slower life. Every song on Big Picture feels like an ode to two people helping each other survive, but none more than this.
“This album is an observation of the way I think about love, the self-examination that comes with closeness and the responsibilities involved in being a big part of someone else’s small(er) world,” summarizes Fenne. “It was written in a place of relative emotional stability – stability that felt unstable because of its newness, but also because of the global context. 2020 was the year of letting go, but we’d all already let go of so much and nothing felt like mine anymore. Writing always did, though, so that’s what I chose to do.”