Pinegrove Reckons With the Past and Renovates Its Sound

Pinegrove Reckons With the Past and Renovates Its Sound

Throughout “Marigold,” the new album by the ordinarily openhearted and unguarded New Jersey folk-emo band Pinegrove, the frontman Evan Stephens Hall presents himself as stuck in mud. “I wake up and feel totally the same/I woke up the same as yesterday,” he sings on “Endless.” On “Phase,” the “Groundhog Day” mood is similarly overcast: “Nowadays I usually just get up/put on a sweater from the day before.”

For a singer known for being appealingly bare, the shift to a resigned tone is striking. Pinegrove’s first three albums — which nestled vivid emo confessionals in soothing roots arrangements — were impressive and sometimes stellar models of communion. They felt like invitations to feel.

So it’s hard not to register lyrics like these as a reflection of the darkness that’s loomed over the band for the last two years. In late 2017, Hall posted on Facebook that he’d been accused of “sexual coercion,” while offering few details. What’s followed has been purgatory in two stages: First, the band shelved its third album, “Skylight,” and went silent for a year, reportedly at the request of the accuser; in late 2018, the group released that album and began sporadically touring and giving interviews.

Pinegrove is fully back now. “Marigold,” the band’s sometimes wounded, sometimes scabbed fourth album, can’t help but feel like the record of that interregnum, even if Hall prefers not to see it that way. “I want to resist an autobiographical interpretation,” he said in an interview with Apple Music about the new album. “I want people to see themselves in this record.”

And to be fair, that is typically how Pinegrove’s music has been received. Over the first three Pinegrove albums, Hall marked himself as a singer and lyricist of uncommon vulnerability, tender and reflective and also nourishing, his songs vessels for other people’s well-being and self-analysis as much as his own. It made for fervent fans who relied on the band for a kind of emotional safe harbor.

What’s unfolded over the last two years, unclear as it has been, has troubled that dynamic, not least because of Hall’s inward turn. “Marigold” is intermittently warm and tense, a more subdued and melancholy album than the ones that precede it. It’s full of coded songs about consent and regret, and also about something that’s not exactly atonement, but more like how to navigate the fresh sting of sunlight after a seemingly interminable night.

“No drugs and alcohol today/I wanna remember everything we talk about,” Hall sings at the beginning of the whispery “No Drugs.” On “Endless,” which updates the lonesome alt-country plaint that the band has specialized in with an energy-drink sheen, Hall muses, “It’s feeling pretty bad to me/but I don’t think it goes on endlessly,” before, at the end of the song, asking for succor: “Hold me forever/when this is under/when this is over.”

There are bright spots of emotional encouragement, especially the interlude “Spiral,” which scans as a healing incantation. Hall’s voice is bright and attentive — it’s the most hopeful moment on the album.

But that mood doesn’t last. On “Marigold,” Pinegrove is a more temperate band than it has been, and also a crisper and less complicated one, a musical direction it had already been moving in on its last album. The chewiest, knottiest song here is the title track, which concludes the album, a six-minute meditation that feels designed, after a half-hour of reckoning, to be inconclusive.

In a recent interview with The New Yorker, the woman who accused Hall offered more details about the situation, explaining that she had been a member of Pinegrove’s road crew and felt pressured into a sexual relationship with him because of the implicit power dynamics of the tour.

If justice is to be truly restorative, it should include input from victims. Pinegrove has now been granted the space — by Hall’s accuser, by fans, by the band’s record label — to attempt to navigate a public renovation.

But to expect the same Pinegrove to re-emerge is wrong. The circumstances that gave birth to “Marigold” are fundamentally different from the ones that created its previous work. And so “Marigold” becomes a kind of referendum on the flexibility of this band’s skill set, and maybe of its listeners: Pinegrove can adapt, but maybe not in ways that will feel familiar. On songs like “Moment” and “The Alarmist,” Hall’s voice does something it hasn’t done on prior albums — it retreats.

(Rough Trade)

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