“Tonight I put on a song you used to pull me in / Another Saturday night, I’m all dressed up in blue,” Meg Duffy confesses in the first lines of “More Than Love”, the lead track on the new Hand Habits album Fun House. Setting the scene with a direct callback to Bruce Springsteen’s “Tougher Than the Rest” — or perhaps the gender-bending 1990 Emmylou Harris version — the line is a keen dressing for the rest of the album, a meditative offering of emotional clarity out now via Saddle Creek.
Duffy, whose roots originally lie as a collaborator with Sylvan Esso and touring guitarist for roots-indie musician Kevin Morby, has garnered praise for vulnerable lyrics like these, in which heartbreak and pain are often laced with a particular sense of maturity and forgiveness over artfully-picked folk instrumentation. In their most recent EP, dirt, for instance, “4th of july”, is a devastating ode to a volatile dynamic in which a loved one causes pain by being unable to process their anxieties. Duffy notes that this theme of their music is influenced by how “the lines between romance and friendship are often blurred” in queer relationships, resulting in a need to approach all connections with an overarching sense of empathy.
Fun House redirects that pattern examination back onto the self. Inspired by the sudden quiet of quarantine and Duffy’s process of emotional reckoning in therapy, there’s a new sense of ownership across the lyrics that emphasizes Duffy’s agency and needs, in addition to those of the other people involved in the intricate dynamics of which they sing. Directly after recalling those sweet song-quoting nothings on “More Than Love”, Duffy sings, “I needed more than that”. Meanwhile, in “Just to Hear You”, they declare, “I know much better now” after detailing the ways they yearned for connection from a previous partner. Still, the empathy that acts as a hallmark of their lyrical storytelling remains intact. On “Clean Air”, Duffy has a compelling realization about the complexity of an emotional dynamic, acknowledging “I can no longer ask that of you.”
Fun House is more adventurous sonically than Duffy’s previous work, too. Produced by Sasami Ashworth (SASAMI) and engineered by Kyle Thomas of King Tuff, the album swings from the typical indie-folk of Hand Habits’ previous discography in “Graves” and “False Start” to dreamy synthpop on “Aquamarine”. The 1970s roots-rock groove of Neil Young, who Duffy recently covered with a version of “I Believe in You” on dirt, also makes an appearance on “Gold/Rust” and “Concrete & Feathers”.
“I think this also coincides with my trans identity too because so much of that journey for me has been me really fighting against what I’m not ‘allowed’ to be,” says Duffy of pushing these artistic boundaries. Queer artistry is its own compelling current across Fun House. Mike Hadreas of Perfume Genius features on “No Difference” and “Just to Hear You”, and the album’s lyrics feature sensual queer imagery like “Aquamarine’s” “a tiny tidepool gathering in your abdomen for me to drink” and “The Answer’s” “my body, a question that hangs on her tongue.”
The naked vulnerability and stylistic experimentation of Fun House are also on display in the recent music video for “Clean Air,” which takes a grungy, “Smells Like Teen Spirit”-style performance setting and lays the tender, plaintive track on top of it. Though dissonant at first glance from “Clean Air’s” understated tone, Duffy’s physicalized, sweat-drenched performance, and the thrashing, headbanging crowd emphasize the emotional turbulence at the song’s core.
Overall, Hand Habits breaks new ground musically and thematically on Fun House, elevating their indie-folk sound and recurring themes of vulnerability and emotional awareness to result in a work that’s more fluid, self-examining, and experimental. Accomplishing this growth while continuing to showcase Duffy’s talents as a songwriter and musician, the album is an elevating follow-up to both placeholder and dirt and a signal of the excellent work sure to come in the future from the Hand Habits project.