Album Review: Hand Habits - placeholder
Only someone as earnest and forthright as Meg Duffy would title an album placeholder and it not be a joke. In fact, their second album as Hand Habits is so loaded with thought and feeling that the idea that placeholder is a quite funny title did not occur until at least a dozen listens in. Listening to Hand Habits’ new record is to wreathe yourself in mental indecision and insecurity, but from the inside of Duffy’s creations the feeling is one of relief; you are imbued with the knowledge that these are universal struggles, and that in itself is beautiful.
It begins with the title track, ‘placeholder’ immediately setting us inside Duffy’s perspective, as they conclude “I was just a placeholder, a place and nothing more.” The dejection of that realisation settles on the listener with subtlety, but not necessarily pain, as Duffy’s guitar and voice ring out with a force of overcoming; this is consistent throughout the album, which repeatedly offers feelings of resilience from within places of hurt. Duffy is undoubtedly an over-thinker, as they pretty much admit in the opening line of forgiveness break-up track ‘jessica’; “when I get to thinking I start worrying that you don’t know me anymore.” However, throughout placeholder Hand Habits is doing their best to ensure we do know them, by giving us the poetic details of their neuroses and frustrations.
It’s also key to mention that Duffy is an exceptional guitarist, as stints in Kevin Morby’s band and guest appearances on William Tyler’s latest record will attest. Crucially, though, this doesn’t just mean they can shred, but that Duffy has a natural way of attuning the tone and timbre of their guitar to match the mood. ‘can’t calm down’ traces the possibility that overwhelming rage runs in their family DNA, and they might not be able to control themselves in any given situation, and here their guitar roils and burns to reflect the pent-up frustration. On the following track, ‘pacify’, Duffy is practically at the other pole, seeing rage in another but deciding “I don’t want to pacify you – you’re not a child,” with a more subdued and equanimous guitar line describing their position, looking in on this behaviour.
With Duffy’s versatile playing and open lyricism, placeholder takes the listener around a roving map of troubles, and delivers body blows at each destination. The double header of ‘jessica’ and ‘yr heart [reprise]’ has the power to leave you in a snivelling wreck, Duffy laying out straightforward folk tracks in which they display their pain and ultimate forgiveness in no uncertain terms. The feared anger that Duffy sings of in ‘can’t calm down’ does rear its head in ‘what’s the use’, a song of desolation where they repeat that universally-applied phrase with tangible hopelessness in the delivery, though not without humanity; “what’s the use, oh what’s the use?/ what’s the use if you’re not trying to forgive?” ‘what lovers do’ comes as the penultimate track, and sounds as though Duffy has concluded that they never knew what lovers were supposed to do this whole time – no wonder they’ve experienced so much pain. At this point, when Duffy has placed themself firmly as an outsider on understanding life experiences, we feel closer to them than ever, and want to ensure that they know we are all just trying to figure out how to be human.
placeholder does end on a positive note, the ringing major chord send-off ‘the book on how to change part II', which feels like the dawning of a new day in Duffy’s mind. Throughout the album we’ve been bathed in guitars and subtle synths, giving the music a hazy immaterial feeling, as if we truly are embedded within the shifting thoughts an overly-active mind. At the end of ‘the book on how to change part II’, Hand Habits inserts a jet of steamy saxophone, and the effect is like a ray of warm golden sunlight penetrating a previously cloistered room, and it leaves us with a feeling of hopefulness and rebirth, which we hope will be carried into Duffy’s life and future musical projects.
This article was originally published on The 405 - 5th March 2019.