My first exposure to Pinegrove was “The Metronome,” a highlight among my college radio station’s often anemic selection of local New Jersey music. It’s one of the Montclair-based band’s best, and also one of the earliest attributed to the project, initially on a 2010 EP and later on Meridian, their 2012 full-length, both of which were eventually subsumed into the Everything So Far compilation once they signed to Run For Cover last year. That’s all to say that it’s taken a long while to get to Cardinal, and each of the eight songs featured demonstrates a skill of editing and musicianship that can only come with time and a lot of practice. But even on “The Metronome,” the spark of the project is apparent: Evan Stephens Hall’s songwriting is concerned with exploring the gaps in human connection and communication, how we never mean what we say or say what we mean. “I agree with your ideas but not your tactics,” howls the chorus on that early cut, making crystal-clear the impasse between practicality and standing by your convictions.
Cardinal, the band’s debut on Run For Cover, delves even deeper into that notion, tending to oscillate between two modes: never knowing what to say, and feeling directionless. Those themes dovetail nicely, and aren’t really all that far removed from each other, and both seem like inevitable sticking points for any twenty-something of a certain restless temperament. The record’s title, like Meridian before it, reveals a fixation with geography and order, but the scatter-brained nature of the songs contained within sound like a compass spinning wildly out of control, unable to find magnetic north.
One thing you’ll notice really quickly is that Hall almost never stops talking. He leaves no time to process things or breathe, but his lyrics are still economical despite their rambling quality. Every turn of phrase is essential to understanding where he’s coming from, but he sure does use a lot of words to explain how he can never find the right ones. You really do get the sense that these songs are Hall’s purest outlet, the only chance for him to put things out there that he’d never have the courage to say in real life. He says as much on “Cadmium“: “Everything I sing I sing for me.” There, he also mentions his tone, a caterwaul which stays consistently sharp and clear until, suddenly and often, it cracks to dramatic effect, betraying all of his doubts.
The one track where he manages to get out all the words is “Aphasia” — the record’s emotional centerpiece named after a speech disorder that makes it difficult for the brain’s neural circuitry to verbalize or act — and it sounds like he’s embittered about finally coming clean because he knows it won’t happen again for far too long. “One day you’ll be reaching for me and I’ll be gone,” he speaks longingly of the fleeting burst of emotional and communicative clarity that allowed him to make a substantive connection. “To help remind myself, I wrote this little song.”
Otherwise, Hall plays the type that’s constantly stuck in his own head while trying very hard not to be, who cuts himself off when things become too complicated, confusing, or conflicted despite knowing its against his best interests. Take this bit from “Old Friends“: “I should call my parents when I think of them/ I should tell my friends when I love them/ Maybe I should go out a bit more, when you guys were still in town/ But I got too caught up in my own shit/ That’s how every outcome’s such a comedown.” Or on “Then Again,” where Hall lays out how he hates to travel but loves to get away, a sentiment echoed on “Visiting” with a startling yelp: “I am out of my goddamn mind and out to California.” Or even more bluntly on “Cadmium”: “Say how it is with everyone I know? I’ve got no temper for that.”
The record’s bookended by “Old” and “New Friends,” both of which confront the communication anxieties that come with sustaining contact with either party. The closest Hall comes to coming out of his shell on the whole album is on its final track, as he’s ready to try anew after all the bridges he’s burned by being so withdrawn: “I resolve to make new friends/ I liked my old ones but I fucked up so I’ll start again/ What’s the worst that could happen?” — a loaded question that provides enough fuel and momentum for a whole next album worth of songs.
Listen to Cardinal below.
Cardinal is out now via Run For Cover.