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Hand Habits’ ‘placeholder’: an exploration of anxiety

| Friday, March 29, 2019

Diane Park | The Observer

Anxiety-ridden, confused, refusing to use capital letters. These adjectives could describe the average college student, or they could describe the second album released by Meg Duffy’s Hand Habits: “placeholder.” Available since early March, the project continues Duffy’s exploration of vulnerability that began with their first release, “Wildly Idle (Humble Before the Void).” Hand Habits’ characteristic soft, slow Americana sound remains much the same, but on “placeholder,” it is combined with a lyrical inquisitiveness that makes for an entirely new listening experience.

Duffy, before “placeholder,” was known for making music on the move. They recorded their first album at home in between tours with Kevin Morby’s backing band, but deliberately moved away from this process for their sophomore album. Hand Habits’ past practice resulted in a music that hinged on a feeling of restlessness — in both sound and song lyrics — that highlighted the experimental nature of their first album, but in a way that felt disjointed at times. By contrast, “placeholder” feels intentional.

To create their latest album, Duffy retreated to a recording studio in Wisconsin and, in the process, crafted some of their most powerful, poetic pieces. The chorus of “can’t calm down” repeats fearful lines — “What if I can’t calm down / And I don’t have that in my bloodline?” — to the extent that they calm the listener. The anxiety-ridden lyrics are supported — not undermined or overpowered — by the song’s pleasant melody, soft guitar and gentle vocals. The peaceful instrumentation that forms the foundation of the album feels like a friend, showing up with a simple hug, a shoulder to cry on or an “It’s all going to be alright.”

Duffy goes on to further explore the idea of friendship — and relationships as a whole — on “placeholder.” So much of the world’s anxiety is the result of miscommunication and misunderstanding between individuals, which Duffy narrows down to the anxiety that accompanies being vulnerable. From the opening lines of “jessica,” Duffy brings into the foreground the human tendency to overthink, to get stuck in our heads: “When I get to thinking / I start to worry that you don’t know me anymore.”

But Duffy captures the necessity of letting go and the good of sharing a part of yourself with another person: “And suddenly, the mirror, it turns itself around / But I’ve seen the deepest part of you.”

Duffy knowingly pens the fear — the understandable and all too familiar fear — that is inescapable when it comes to opening up to another person, but chooses to dwell on the beauty and forgiveness that comes with mutual vulnerability.

An album that foregrounds the narrative aspects of music making, “placeholder” tells the story of the social experiences and interactions we tend to fear most. By addressing these anxieties directly, and exploring them with a genuine inquisitiveness and respect, Duffy creates an album that deftly describes the human experience and provides a comforting presence in the process.

Artist: Hand Habits

Album: “placeholder”

Label: Saddle Creek

Favorite Tracks: “can’t calm down,” “jessica”

If you like: Deerhunter, Sharon Van Etten

Shamrocks: 4 out of 5

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