This is a column called Pity Party and it is brought to you by Lauren O'Neill from Noisey UK. It's about music (obviously) and feelings and #feelings. Please cry along, thanks.
"Say how it is with everybody I know
I got no temper for that"
Every year, I get restless in the autumn. Despite not having been in school or university for a while now, I have learned the approach of treating the third season like a new start. Though I no longer rely on a new academic year to dictate how I spend my time after the meandering summer, I can still rely on the changes in the light to shift my perspective a little bit.
For 2017, I was practical: I gave away some summer clothes and dug out sweaters I had stowed under my bed ready for their glorious October resurrection. I bought a new pair of boots, and a fleecy jacket, and a sensible backpack, and I felt prepared. In the same way as I put on different clothes, I reverted to the music I associate with colder weather, too.
One of the bands I fall back on when the air catches a chill is Pinegrove, because they sound warm and abundant. In February of last year, the New Jersey group released Cardinal, their second album, and their first on the cult label Run For Cover Records. Last week, they also released a new single, "Intrepid" (it's great), but what I want to talk about is Cardinal. It's an intelligent, tender record that transcends quintessential emo; the sound is more mature somehow. In the same vein as, say Cassadaga by Bright Eyes, the songs on Cardinal are made brighter by the rich textures of country music, and the whole endeavour has the quality of floating—between genres, between experiences.
The lesson I've learned from returning to this album this year is that Cardinal can mean whatever you make of it. This year, instead of visualizing what's acted out on the record, I see colors—rich red, deep mahogany; fall colors. It makes sense: Evan Stephens Hall, Pinegrove's vocalist and primary lyricist, has spoken about his admiration for modernist writers like Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. Both are authors who use language on the page like paint on a canvas—words make broad, impressionistic brushstrokes rather than the painstaking pencil lines of faithful description. The technique makes for work that places emphasis on the connections the reader is able to make between it and their own life, and the lyrics on Cardinal feel like they were crafted in this mould.
They manage succinctness, vagueness, and emotional candor simultaneously. "The truth is I lost all track of time / And I wound up wandering / Unravelling fragments all inside / But I rise up aligning," Stephens Hall sings on "Visiting." In four lines there, he tells a non-specific story of recovery that any listener can find something in. Cardinal frequently features such moments of universal realization, punctuated by patches of detail—the Port Authority setting of "Old Friends," or the admission "I was totally nervous to go to Japan" on "Then Again"—which act like a loose but guiding narrative. The words in these songs rarely tell you what to think; instead they're largely abstract enough to signify what you need them to. And it's this abstraction, and the last few weeks, that've made these songs take on a stark gravity for me.
October was horrifyingly literal. Every woman I know suddenly walked with a curve in her shoulders. We were all weighted by the heft of everything we already knew being made public on an enormous scale—the mass of abuse allegations against the film producer Harvey Weinstein encouraged others to share the often awful stories of their own experiences. The internet became an even trickier labyrinth of words than usual, spilling with accusations, opinions, disagreements every second.
Though it was dreadful, it was important. The extent of the problem is evidenced by its sheer scale. Weeks after the Weinstein claims broke, I'm still writing news stories about men in music who are accused of abuse, assault, and cruelty, and the outpouring that has occurred since he was named is, certainly, what was needed to catalyse change in a culture that has never been properly confronted with its own pathology. But as necessary as abuse survivors coming forward has been, when you're seeing your worst moments reflected back at you every time you refresh the page, it gets wearying. I found myself worrying about whether I too should say #MeToo, and the dull reality existent in the plain wording of new allegation after new allegation—as well as in my own ability to relate to them—made me sore.
I needed to get away from the tangibility of all the terribleness. So I took time away from social media, and I did not stop listening to Pinegrove—I shoved them in my ears at work, on the bus, anywhere where I was alone—because they give meaning breathing space. Compared with the clarity of crisp fact present in all the descriptions of mistreatment, the band's tendency to leave some things up to interpretation provided softness and respite. On the song "Cadmium," Stephens Hall sings "Ignore my tone and everything / I sing, I sing for me / Ignore the phone on the bed / It rings, it rings, it rings." Listening to them this October, those words spoke to my need to give myself room to be a person, instead of one avatar in an endless scroll.
A couple of weekends ago, I saw Pinegrove play in a church in east London, and it felt like peace and convergence and an outlet. That would have been a good way to tie this up, but it's not the whole story. Three days after that—on the last day of October—I got hit in the face with a firework on my way home from work. It hurt. It still hurts. And it was fitting—the perfect end to a horrible month, and a reminder that literality wins in the end. The real world will always be real: there's nothing we can do about that, no matter what we listen to.
But despite everything October wrought—the long sigh of collective suffering, a couple of black eyes, and a big lump on my forehead—the month also helped me to remember one of the things I love most about music. As demonstrated by Pinegrove and Cardinal, music can provide sanctuary and lucidity at once. It can give you somewhere to go when your circumstances are tough, but it can offer a new prism through which to view those circumstances—and maybe even find beauty in them—too. Sitting here, finishing this column after days of wondering how I would, in pain but lucky, I'm pretty happy to have found the beauty. I think I have Pinegrove to thank.
You can find Lauren on Twitter.