The very first Palehound songs were acerbic and wired. They could be dark and ugly, even masochistic at times. “Vandalize my body if it helps you sleep soundly,” Ellen Kempner begs on one of her best early tracks. The music she was making back then matched that energy: knotted guitars dripping with sourness and slime. But as Kempner has grown up and settled down, her songs have become less nervy and more quietly assured. Black Friday, Palehound’s third full-length album, is her most accomplished yet. It trades in the slicing guitars that made Kempner so beloved for more pillowy arrangements that sound like something you could fall back on to keep warm. “I think I hate my body/ ‘Til it’s next to yours,” she sings instead here — something once accepting of harm now deserving of love.
Love abounds on Black Friday. At its center is a healthy partnership that feels like a safe bubble, one that isn’t liable to fade away any time soon. “Aaron,” one of Kempner’s most gorgeous songs, is about supporting her partner through his transition, and it’s filled with tender-hearted declarations of devotion that slide out into open air. “You live your life with your back turned to me/ Your body swaying, voice steady in stance,” she sings. “If shutting my mouth will help you/ Turn around, Aaron/ I can, I can, Aaron, I can.” Even more than the specific experience, “Aaron” is about learning how to be comfortable with what we’ve been given, about wanting to feel weightless in the face of life’s burden. “Rid of our bodies, come and float with me,” she beckons. It’s the happiest Kempner has ever sounded in her music, when she’s opening herself up to new forms of love.
Palehound’s last album, A Place I’ll Always Go, had happy songs like this, too, but they were tempered by songs about death. That album was written shortly after Kempner’s grandmother and a close friend passed away in quick succession, and a lot of those songs were dealing with the disconnect that comes with happiness arriving at the most inopportune time. But Black Friday accepts happiness as something that we’re entitled to, that everyone should feel regardless of their situation. “If there’s anything I learned while I was back in town/ It’s that nothing worth loving ever sticks around/ But you,” Kempner sings on the last lines of this album.
Her newfound stability allows her the opportunity for some perspective to explore devotion in all its forms. Some of the most impressive songs are about friendships and partnerships that didn’t work out. On the album’s title track, Kempner reflects on one such friendship where she constantly felt like an afterthought, but a mislaid sense of dedication kept her coming back for more. “I’ll take being the last one on your mind,” she sings. “Still squeeze me in, never cared about waiting on your line.” The album’s title comes from this clever barb: “You’re Black Friday and I’m going to the mall,” a reminder of our tendency to keep doing things that we know are bad for us, like keeping up the ties of an imbalanced friendship or stoking the memories of an old flame, like Kempner does on the anthemic “Stick N Poke.” There she adopts some of her clanging old-school dramatic flair for a shout-along chorus: “I think I’m due for a shitty tattoo! I only have these thoughts when I’m missing you!”
A good relationship will only get you so far away from your demons, though, and Kempner still falls into old patterns of negativity on Black Friday. Love isn’t a cure for self-consciousness and self-loathing. The feeling that you’re never going to be enough is pervasive, that expectation that the worst will happen never really goes away. On “Worthy,” she pokes at that old wound of unworthiness: “I text you late at night/ I’m in the motel bathroom/ Staring at my thighs.” But Kempner leans into that fear, using it to remind herself of how far she’s come already. “At the thought of losing you/ My muscles hum familiar tunes/ And curl me to a naked ball/ Wet on our shower floor/ How do I unfurl from here?” she sings on the album’s closing track. But the difference between then and now is that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, in the form of another half that understands where you’re coming from and accepts you for who you are.
Black Friday’s central visual motif is a plush puppet mask (created by Gaudmother) that’s featured on the album’s cover art and recurs in its music videos. In the one for “Aaron,” we see this puppet before it assumes its final form. It’s rough-looking, covered in lint and muck, a gigantic outer protective layer that ends up being shed as it runs wildly through the streets, emerging into a cozy and lovable Muppet-like creature, delightful in its awkwardness. Kempner achieves a similar transformation with this album. Her gnarled guitar lines have given way to soft-focus serenity, warm keys stemming the anxiety that once threatened to envelop her. Her bitter edge has opened up to vulnerability and light.
Black Friday is out 6/7 via Polyvinyl.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Yohuna’s reflective, crisp Mirroring.
• Stef Chura’s sharp and focused Midnight.
• Pelican’s grand, heavy Nighttime Stories.
• Cave In’s first album since the death of Caleb Scofield, Final Transmission.
• Dumb’s frantic, lampooning Club Nites.
• Haybaby’s needling and assured They Get There.
• French Vanilla’s ambitious art-rocking How Am I Not Myself?.
• Jake Xerxes Fussell’s wandering, introspective Out Of Sight.
• Lust For Youth’s shimmering, dancey self-titled album.
• Tim Heidecker’s comedy singalong What The Brokenhearted Do…
• Yeasayer’s sardonic and chaotic Erotic Reruns.
• Pixx’s intimate, varied Small Mercies.
• No Aloha’s glittering, dreamy Okay Alone.
• The Curls’ skittering, left-field Bounce House.
• TENGGER’s expansive Spiritual 2.
• Cosmo Gold’s funky, sweet Waiting On The City.
• Drawing Boards’ washed-out, surfy The Message
• Jonas Brothers’ pop comeback album Happiness Begins.
• Avici’s posthumous collection TIM.
• Perry Farrell’s Kind Heaven.
• Santana’s Africa Speaks.
• Bob Dylan’s The Rolling Thunder Revue: The 1975 Live Recordings.
• Neil Young’s live concert album TUSCALOOSA.