Song of the Week: Indie Royalty Big Thief Keep the Crown with “Vampire Empire”

Song of the Week delves into the fresh songs we just can’t get out of our heads. Find these tracks and more on our Spotify Top Songs playlist, and for our favorite new songs from emerging artists, check out our Spotify New Sounds playlist. This week, Big Thief return with a spellbinding live-favorite, “Vampire Empire”

Reigning indie rock royalty Big Thief have returned with a studio version of their recent live staple, “Vampire Empire.” It’s a pleasant-but-charged offering from the band, who are still in the midst of their tour in support of their stunning 2022 album, Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You (get tickets here). After premiering it on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert back in March, they’re giving fans “Vampire Empire” this week, perhaps as a reminder of what these four are capable of.

“Vampire Empire” is a love song, but a love song that feels akin to the raw, burning sonics of their 2019 album, Two Hands. In fact, it’s a love song that has equal parts love and anger, adoration and contempt. There are loads of contradictory images in Adrienne Lenker’s surreal, naked lyricism: blood in the same bed as opening flowers, lighting matches in the snow, the desire for both surrender and control. Lenker circles around these toxic patterns with impressionist detail, arriving at the realization that she is “falling.” She is falling deeper in love? Perhaps. She is falling deeper into the harsh entanglement that the relationship thrives on? Probably.

Thus spawns the vampire empire metaphor, the way that pain and anguish, under the guise of intimate co-dependency, can feel both intoxicating and lethal. Despite James Krivchenia’s playful, tambourine-heavy trot, you can still feel the sticky heat in Lenker’s atmosphere, the charged undercurrent beneath her accented by Buck Meek’s scraping, empty strums in the chorus. There is life and death here, tiny feelings that stand up to big ones.

Lenker reaches a blistering peak in the final verse, and those powerful contradictions become carnal, furious confusions. She shifts from “I” statements to “You” statements in the second half of the third verse, working up to a fiery shout with, “You turn me inside out and then you want the outside in/ You spin me all around, then you ask me not to spin/ You say you want to be alone, and you want children/ You wanna be with me, you wanna be with him.” The band builds to a boiling point, and as they uproot themselves for one more chorus, they fall all together in a cathartic, almost joyous release.

It’s a powerful single from Big Thief, its simplicity made all the more affecting by Lenker’s fraught observations. This is a band with an extraordinary capacity to mine the spaces in between, to make the intangible and the indescribable illimunated with clarity and poise. In short, Big Thief are in their bag, and “Vampire Empire” is yet another thrilling example of their indie rock majesty.

— Paolo Ragusa
Associate Editor