Pinegrove helmsman Evan Stephens Hall is correct when he says his band point outward while emo typically points inward. From pondering the birds “singing the sadness of the afternoon” to the Kenyon College pines that gave the band its name to the song titles—”Habitat”, “Alaska”, “Flora”—Pinegrove are a band that find meaning outside. “I want to be a part of it,” Hall cries on “Swimming”. Throughout 11:11, he aims his literate tongue at wildfires and cyclones, intertwines personal sadness with the environment, and both he and the world to which he tries to remain tethered collapse in unison.
Pinegrove’s fifth album follows last year’s Amperland, NY, a live album/film set in the band’s eponymous Upstate New York farmhouse. Stephens Hall and drummer Zack Levine rediscovered their stride with a Wes Anderson-indebted color-noir palette at their disposal. For much of 2018, Pinegrove were on hiatus—”a period of intense self-reflection,” said Hall—after allegations of sexual coercion were levied against him. Having now grown back most of their fan base, Pinegrove have elevated themselves from being just another emo band. “THERE ARE SO MANY OTHER BANDS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” tweeted a music critic at the time of the allegations. Although there are many other bands, Pinegrove have seemingly entered self-referential art project territory, thereby justifying their continued existence… arguably.
Of course, 11:11 is less ambitious than Amperland. But it fights to earn its place by finding a compromise between jejune longing and anxieties around social justice, the environment, and mental health. “Orange” is an apprehensive waltz to the tune of climate collapse. “They’re trying to ignore it / We always knew they’d try / Today the sky is orange / And you and I know why,” Hall pleads, cycling minor chords lagging like an imprudent government behind his urgent voice. The resigned hum of “11th Hour” follows suit. “When coal is cut across the sky / In saturated dye / An actual emergency now / It’s really going down,” he almost whispers before the album abruptly finishes, like the meteoric climax of a doomsday flick.
“Respirate” is a COVID-era mental health confessional-cum-societal critique, an attempt to see the “space between the trees”—as a society recovering from a pandemic but also as an individual. The optimistic apogee that Hall hovers over—”But I care now / Not gonna let you down”—is swept away within seconds as “Let” opens with the admission, “I let you down today.” Elsewhere, the whippy single “Alaska” nears clarity (“And I let it land me down and tether me”), while “Iodine” is one of the strongest tracks in spite of, or because of, its adherence to the American Football playbook. Choppy drum syncopation, diffident Wurlitzer bleeps, plinking Stratocasters, elongated vocal croons—this is the instrumentation favored throughout, the banjo and lap steel of previous releases gone with the wind.
“Flora” is the keeper, a perfect amalgamation of alt-country and emo that first propelled the band onto tattoo shop receipts and indie festival bills. It’s a search for nature’s increasingly elusive restorative powers. “I insist it wasn’t always like this / I saw the sun, saw red in the grass / With every fiber vibrating alive,” Hall concludes on his knees, bowing down to the flora, “praying now to the forest.” Nature’s reliability is now in question. A once dependable oasis is drying up, and the desperation is audible.
Despite 11:11’s urgency and sincerity, some might suggest that Pinegrove have passed the point of no return, forever sullied their reputation (again, there are so many other bands). However, with a commitment to Mother Nature and earning their keep, 11:11 will placate Pinegrove’s dedicated fanbase. It’s unclear whether it will harvest many new ‘pinenuts’, but it turns our faces to the flora, and in 2022 that’s far more rewarding than emo’s usual nebulous yearning.