Album Of The Week: Hand Habits placeholder
Meg Duffy’s first Hand Habits album was recorded alone at home in stolen moments between tours, while they were playing as part of Kevin Morby’s backing band. It was a low-key affair — humble, you might say, which was reflected in its title: Wildly Idle (Humble Before The Void). The album came across like an elongated sigh, written by a restless being longing for stasis. It’s an album about decompressing in between stretches of chaos. It’s sort of a “guitar record,” in that Duffy is a virtuoso player and loves to geek out about gear and experiment with different tones, but Wildly Idle is also wonderfully meandering and interior, a great album to sit back and get lost in.
placeholder is not that. It’s more focused, it’s fired-up, it sounds more pointed and intentional and it makes you sit up and take notice of the intensely layered compositions that Duffy has made. Duffy went to Wisconsin to record it, far away from either place they’ve called home — where they grew up, in upstate New York, or where they’re based now, in Los Angeles. Duffy co-produced it with Brad Cook at April Base, the center for Justin Vernon’s coterie of musicians. Duffy’s arrangements are more complex on placeholder, and they’re benefited by the higher fidelity. But even more, they’re bolstered by meatier songs. The playing often takes a backseat to narrative and hooks — the intricacies sneak up on you only after you’ve gotten used to the swells of the stories contained within. Duffy’s guitar work is anchored now in songs that get stuck in your head rather than gently pass you by, and that makes a world of difference.
Duffy has found themselves in a line of modern musicians that blend folk traditionalism with indie-rock incisiveness. At points, placeholder recalls the piercing lucidity of Angel Olsen, the confidence of Sharon Van Etten, even the gentle world-building of Duffy’s fellow LA transplants Florist and Lomelda. Duffy certainly is inspired by an older guard — they cite Stevie Ray Vaughan as one of their favorite guitar players, and a song on placeholder stems from hearing “Silver Springs” on the radio — but their songs feel very much of-the-moment, as Duffy untangles ideas of identity and accountability and what it means to change, both for yourself and for others.
Throughout placeholder, Duffy awkwardly molds themselves to fit other people’s conceptions. “I was afraid when I lost my identity inside you/ I guess we’re the same,” Duffy sings on one song. “I’ve seen what love can do,” they sing on another: “Holding out for someone and your heart gets hollowed out.” The “placeholder” of its title track is a relationship stop-gap, a misunderstanding of expectation and desire, but it also represents something that is missing — another refraction of the void that Duffy confronted on their first album. The album cover is shaped like a puzzle piece, waiting for its connecting half. Repeatedly on these songs, Duffy tries to be everything to everyone but realizes that it just isn’t possible. People can’t be one-size-fits-all.
placeholder is guided by this quiet revelation, which Duffy comes about by looking at the world from all angles. Because of this, Duffy’s writing style is intimate but a bit removed, knowing that their words can’t possibly capture every point of view. The album is filled with crisp, inquisitive songs about just how indefinable people are. They’re constantly shifting, impossible to pin down. “Clarity hides within complexity,” they sing on “pacify,” a song about trying to figure out the right thing to say to placate someone but realizing that sometimes what needs to be said isn’t always what’s right. Duffy wants this clarity through complexity, but they’re afraid of what it might mean or if it’s even possible. They want desperately to change, to become whatever multifaceted being it is that they’ve always wanted to be, but they feel pinned to the past.
On standout “can’t calm down,” Duffy revisits the place where they grew up — the buzzing lights and trees that marked a confused adolescence. “I don’t want to be that,” they soundly reject, but they wonder about a human being’s capacity to truly change from their circumstance: “What if I can’t calm down and I don’t have that in my bloodline?” Duffy admires those that achieve a sense of unknowing, but is unsure whether they can achieve that same level of complexity, or if they’ll always be betrayed by their emotions, their history, their desires.
Duffy’s view of themselves is eternally relatable: that feeling that you’ll never truly be enough for yourself or for others. That you’re in a constant state of transition, never quite reaching there, wherever there might be. The multiplicity that Duffy strives for might never be completely attainable, but Duffy manages to not get bogged down too much in the mires of unknowing and finds comfort in the lack of answers. The songs on placeholder are vibrant and full of life, even when they’re languishing in the ether. The lack of clarity only pushes Duffy to search harder and further for whatever it is that feels knowable, that feels real. To become less of a placeholder and more fully present to themselves and everyone else.
placeholder is out 3/1 via Saddle Creek Records. Pre-order it here.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Weezer’s album of original songs Weezer (The Black Album).
• Westkust’s fuzzily liberating self-titled sophomore album
• Pond’s psych-pop swirl Tasmania
• Royal Trux’s noise-rocking, drama-adjacent White Stuff
• Delicate Steve’s heroic guitar jam Till I Burn Up
• Gangster Doodles’ underground all-star rap compilation Gangster Music Vol. 1
• CFCF’s new-agey squiggle Liquid Colours
• Hozier’s sophomore album Wasteland, Baby!
• Tanya Tagaq’s Toothsayer EP
• Wild Pink’s 5 Songs EP