Meg Duffy’s first album as Hand Habits had a title as misleading as her second one. Wildly Idle (Humble Before the Void) (2017) was neither wild nor idle, although its humility was evident in the unassuming placement of the vocals in the mix and the languid musical arrangements, interspliced with poems (she called them “scenes”) by writers known to Duffy, suggested a vista that may well have been on the edge of an abyss. But this was a work of devastating power from which, as a listener, it has been difficult to recover, so it is difficult to speculate as to how Duffy herself has been able to pick up the pieces and move forward.
There was enough emotional grist on that first album to last more than a single lifetime, and yet it turns out that are more mills and wringers for us to be put through, as new album placeholder confirms. This album is also misleadingly titled since there is nothing at all provisional about these songs. The lower case of placeholder also suggests a shyness of sorts, a deliberate modesty, which may turn out to be slightly disingenuous, because the title song which leads off the album sardonically deploys the word, casting bitter shade at a former lover who has mistreated our protagonist with the most casual of affections: “Oh but I was just a placeholder / A lesson to be learned / Oh I was just a place holder / A place you will return.” Each quatrain packs a similar punch and the low-key delivery, and rough ballad meter surely recalls another fiercely underestimated lyricist, namely the venerable Emily Dickinson of yore.
As with Dickinson, you underestimate that sing-song meter and that reclusive wallflower impression at your own peril, because she will cut you to the quick. The album starts to feel like the best musical heroine award tour ever when the second track, “can’t calm down” opens with a distinctively Breeders-like intro, but Duffy is no blind follower of idols, but rather a savvy acknowledger of legends as she continues to carve out her own. The opening notes of the third track “pacify” lead you to expect a guest vocal from Matt Berninger, so much do they resemble the beginning of an elliptical National mini-drama, but Duffy once again feints and zig-zags, as seems to be her wont here. These allusions seem too clear not to be knowingly offered.
It would be woefully remiss not to mention Duffy’s agility and dexterity on the guitar, and not just because she has played such a role in Kevin Morby’s band. In Duffy’s hands the instrument is made to sound preternaturally delicate and rippingly powerful by turns, as both “pacify” and “jessica” demonstrate, and her ability to walk gracefully between discretion and valor in this regard is a wonder to behold. This kind of fluctuation between restraint and assertion is reflected equally deftly in the lyrical dynamic. Take this little example from “pacify”: “Slower if you want it to be / Well I can change my speed / Oh I can wait for you to tell me when to speak,” where the title once again does deceptive work and the lyrical subtlety demonstrates the painfully nuanced dynamics of power as it is wielded and withheld in relationships.
The interweaving of musical and lyrical energies in this way accrues for the entire album an impressively powerful overall effect that is almost novelistic in its shadings and its systolic and diastolic energies. In fact, it’s the emotional toll on the listener can be heavy if one pays full attention absolutely all of the time. “jessica” is harrowing all by itself and it’s only the fourth track on the album. “yr heart (reprise)” seems intent on dragging us through some kind of proving ground long before the album has concluded, opening with the following exquisite nugget of pain: “Your heart beats hard / Like the pounding of the sparrow / On the window that faces the yard / And you are far but not that far / I can feel you push your fingers / Through the fabric of all of my thoughts.”
There is a similarly uncanny intuition on display in “jessica” where Duffy says, “and they say / Time casts its spell on you / Suddenly the mirror it turns itself around / But I’ve seen the deepest part of you / But I can’t act as though my voice can reach you now.” This is how the album feels in capsule summary as if the songwriter is playing our most painful feelings back to us, which is both what we do and precisely do not want from our confessors and confessionals. Because while we want our musical heroines to tell us the truth and there is a deep and grateful joy in recognition that our pain is shared, we also need some kind of a release from these painful truths at some point. That may be why we get ‘heat” on the heels of “yr heart (reprise)”, because it is mostly an instrumental song with a single lyrical line, and the instrumentation includes a keyboard sound that appears to mimic a steel drum of the kind that Jamie XX used that one time. So as far as this album is concerned, that would constitute something close to a party.
The narrative, and indeed the agita, pick up again with “are you serious?” and the truly beautiful “wildfire”, but it’s on “what’s the use” that we get the closest thing that the album might have to what we used to call a “breakout single”. It recalls peak Aimee Mann in all of the nooks and crannies of its jaded melodies and hooks. It seems as if this moment propels the album into a kind of MTV/VH1 territory, launching into a pop lexicon both musical and lyrical, on this and the final three songs that might constitute an audition for some kind of honest-to-goodness commercial crossover. All of this happens, by the way, without the album losing a shred of dignity or integrity.
placeholder is an album that never gets stuck but also never feels less than thoroughly cohesive. That is a hard trick to pull off and Hand Habits does it with consummate aplomb. It felt like Wildly Idle would be difficult, if not impossible, to follow, and placeholder feels similarly devastating and accomplished.