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Fables, faith and fashion-less folly: a Pinenut responds to ‘Marigold’

| Friday, January 31, 2020

Diane Park

The New Yorker’s Kelefa Sanneh opened his even-handed assessment of Pinegrove’s “complicated comeback” at a music festival on “a hot Michigan afternoon in September, 2017.”

Recalling Pinegrove’s set with measured objectivity, Sanneh chronicled a strange utterance.

“I feel it’s unfortunate that I have to wear sunglasses,” bandleader Evan Stephens Hall explained to his devoted fans — Pinenuts, they call themselves — before lifting his sunglasses, allowing them a glimpse of his eyes. “Because the eyes are the best way to let a person know you mean it,” Hall continued. “Trust me — I mean it.”

“It’s a joke, sort of,” Sanneh wrote, his “sort of” accounting for the quasi-religious nature of the Pinenuts whose ritualistic doubling of lyrics and interpretation of banter resembled the spiritual exercises of a minor cult.

As a Pinenut myself (one of those present on that “hot Michigan afternoon”), I can neither deny nor criticize the quasi-religious label (I did, after all, just bestow it upon myself ). In fact, I find it conducive to self-indulgence. It gives me an excuse to plumb the depths of Pinegrove’s back catalogue, locate in the early tracks a lyric from  “On Jet Lag:” “Cat’s Cradle is a fable / We all know that.”

I presume the line references Kurt Vonnegut’s 1963 novel “Cat’s Cradle,” a satire investigating the lives of several Bokononists — followers of the enigmatic religious leader, Bokonon, who promises in the first verse of his sacred text: “All of the truths I am about to tell you are shameless lies.”

Thus:

Bokononism is a fable, but the Bokononists all know that. Likewise, “Cat’s Cradle” (in which Bokononism resides) is also a fable, but we, the readers, know that. All invested parties — fictional or otherwise — accept the fiction underlying belief, not because fiction contains some granule of truth but to access an absurd comfort: meaningless meaning in a universe teetering on the brink of the apocalypse. Bokononism, “Cat’s Cradle,” might be jokes, sort of, but nobody seems to care.

Taken one level higher:

I (Pinenut) am to a Vonnegut reader what a Vonnegut Reader is to a Bokononist. Likewise, Hall is to Vonnegut what Vonnegut is to Bokonon. Lastly, Hall’s output is to “Cat’s Cradle” what “Cat’s Cradle” is to “The Books of Bokonon.” Pinegrove is a fable, and I know that. I expect no truth nor light nor way to come from verbiage inclined  “to sublimate away?” (from “Cadmium” on 2016’s “Cardinal”) But I worship it anyway, because I, taking my cue from “No Drugs” (on 2020’s “Marigold”), “want to feel good.”

Or so I thought before multilayered fictions subsumed Hall, leaving me, his quasi-religious follower, in spiritual limbo. When Hall’s lengthy, uncapitalized and frankly obscure Facebook post informed us of the “sexual coercion” accusation made against him, it recolored the layers of comforting fiction in which I participated as layers of problematic love. The text of the post reflected (in the words of Roland Barthes) a “subject [Hall]” as he “suddenly realizes that he is imprisoning the loved object in a net of tyrannies,” shading his “pitiable” façade with questionable overtones.

Guilt seeped into my affections. Despite concerted efforts, I couldn’t sever ties with Hall or his work. His fiction lived too close to my own — faults as well as flourishes. Each critical maneuver against Hall’s words and actions (as I understood them) incised my own deeply flawed subjectivity. Realizing this was simultaneously cleansing and painful: a clearing.

Awaiting the release of “Marigold,” Hall’s first substantial creative project since the accusations (he wrote and recorded 2018‘s “Skylight” before the accusations surfaced but delayed its release until the end of the band’s yearlong hiatus), I hoped for a new fiction — something to grapple the fraught circumstances of its creator’s past.

Now, having listened to “Marigold” 25+ times (standard Pinenut practice), I can say (coming from a place of complete subjectivity), timidly, that my hopes have been fulfilled.

Diverging from the stark ironies suspended in “Cardinal’s” lack of direction and “Skylight’s” twilit confusion, “Marigold” gently plods along the path of clear, careful intentionality.

“May no fantasy hold my head up / Nor may no memory hold my head in,” Hall sings on “Dotted Line,” “Marigold’s” opening track, drawing a visible — albeit permeable — line between the fantastic (fictional) and the real.”

Hall’s words, tightly melodized and later harmonized (courtesy of Half Waif’s Nandi Rose Plunkett) overtop drummer Zach Levine’s sparse rhythmic spine and guitarists’ (Hall, Josh Marré, Nick Levine and Sam Skinner) compressed downstroke, knit together as song with lots of muscle and very little fat: a far cry from the wailing distortion extrapolating inner strife to the “Size of the Moon” (a Pinenut standard first released on “Mixtape 2” and rerecorded for “Cardinal”) on Pinegrove’s early releases.

The rest of “Marigold” maintains “Dotted Line’s” commitment to restraint, eliminating outsized remnants of emo to focus on roots (i.e. alt-country underpinnings). While Hall’s decision to share more DNA with twang pop luminaries like The Jayhawks, Jackson Browne and Dave Rawlings than Modern Baseball or Mom Jeans might alienate those looking to scratch adolescent itches with his music (like Pitchfork’s Marc Hogan, who thinks the record lacks “luster”), “Marigold” comes as a welcome shift to anyone who appreciates masterful songwriting.

What Hogan deems the “sullen, drab mood” actually constitutes a space quiet enough for subtle shifts in melody, harmonization and vocal delivery to slide through a panoply of meanings and emotions in the time it takes Hall to sing a single word.

When Hogan criticizes the verbal motifs — “more than one song hinges on an encounter with an animal on a road” — as banal, he ignores the tonal space in which the words live, placing too much emphasis on the word itself and not enough on the context in which it resides. A song like “Moment’s” introduction of “an animal on the side of the road,” frozen in time such that the singer “can’t see past it,” sets up an angle of perspective to be subverted (both verbally and musically) by the end of the record when “an animal” (nameless, formless) returns as the comically precise “mid-sized opossum in front of my house dying” while “Neighbor” comforts it with mellow apologies.

The repetition in “Marigold” speaks to those who listen carefully.

But, for all its beautiful subtlety, “Marigold” fails to be cool. The cool modifier belongs to records that push boundaries, innovate form and bravely assert the difficult ideas we, as a culture, need to internalize (see: Solange’s “When I Get Home” and Tyler the Creator’s “Igor”).

“Marigold” does none of these. It’s patently uncool, and not in the hipster sort of way.

It knows it can’t make a claim on coolness without first investigating its own follies — those it shares with Hall, myself and anyone else whose moody obsessions often take control. For Hall to make any other record for his comeback would have been both ingenuous and irresponsible. On “Marigold,” Hall finds himself right where he needs to be, and I’m alright to be there with him, responsibly uncool.

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