by Jacob Schwartz (@jschwa95)
The songs of Los Angeles songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Meg Duffy, released under the name Hand Habits, have always had a beautiful, ghostly quality. Earlier this month saw the release of their second full-length offering, placeholder, whose vulnerable folk-rock tracks radiate a newfound directness and confidence. These songs are honest introspections on desire, anxiety, loss and identity.
Unlike their first album, placeholder is the first Hand Habits record to be produced in a studio, with help from collaborators to give the record a fuller, more polished sound. However, the album’s musical identity still clearly belongs to Duffy. Rustic arrangements are filled out with soft and steady acoustic guitars and intricate layers of wispy electric guitar parts that fade in and out like the sun peaking out from behind a cloud.
Sitting amongst these layers of etherial guitars and soft twang, Duffy’s vocals and lyrics don’t just paint a picture, they whisk you away to a place that is both nostalgic and other-worldly. On “Are You Serious?,” an album highlight that reflects back on a rocky, on-and-off relationship, they sing “walk back to your apartment / the wallpaper, the fabric / it all fades away / in the bathroom with clay on my face.” Meanwhile, a synth pad blankets the guitars with tones that walk the line between tranquil and ominous.
“What’s the Use” also focuses on a turbulent relationship, but emphasizes forgiveness. The verses tell of a complex partner – one capable of being “a dove, so peaceful in the morning,” but also of “starting fires with your hands.” This push and pull of peace and destruction is a relatable concept, and the song’s performance feels raw and true.
In the powerful opening song and title track “Placeholder,” Duffy stands up for themself, and, with restrained frustration, addresses someone who didn’t value them. After the second anthemic chorus, the arrangement bursts into a darker instrumental section, with thick vocal “ahh”s and a distorted lead guitar line that screeches with existential anguish. Lines such as “to say that you told me the truth is to tell each other lies,” are succinct, and hit hard.
placeholder displays the emotions and risks that come with showing vulnerability, against a backdrop of hauntingly pristine modern-folk arrangements. The result is a comprehensive, thoughtful work of art that is as honest as it is beautiful.