Completed in 2017 and shelved for almost a year, Pinegrove’s third record is smaller, softer, and closer to the chest.
A year ago, it looked like Pinegrove’s next move would almost certainly cement their status as indie rock heroes. Formed in Montclair, New Jersey in 2010 by friends Evan Stephens Hall and drummer Zack Levine, Pinegrove spent the next six years honing their folky math rock in increasingly packed basements. With their 2016 record, Cardinal, they magnificently captured the everythingness of being alive. It was a small record that did big things, reaching wide swaths of listeners by embracing the sentimentality of emo, the catchiness of power-pop, and the twang of country, creating a universe that felt welcoming and sincere. When size of the crowd at Pinegrove’s early evening set at last year’s Pitchfork Music Festival dramatically eclipsed that of their emo forefathers, American Football, who occupied the same stage later that day, it was clear that a torch had been passed.
But three weeks after the November 2017 release of a glorious and cathartic single, “Intrepid,” everything came to a standstill. As Hall explained in a long, confusing Facebook post, he had been accused of “sexual coercion” by a woman he had been in a relationship with. In accordance with the alleged victim’s wishes, Hall and the band shelved Skylight, canceled their U.S. tour, and disappeared. So did many of their fans, who immediately denounced Pinegrove. Ten months after the Facebook post, in a story detailing the situation, Hall told Pitchfork, “I take consent seriously. All of our encounters were verbally consensual. But, OK, certainly this isn’t from nowhere. If she came away feeling bad about our encounter, feeling like she couldn’t express how she was feeling honestly at the time, that’s a huge problem.” He added, “We are thoroughly in favor of the dismantling of patriarchal structures, and the movement right now to elevate survivors and victims of abuse. And we are not interested in a listenership that doesn’t care about that.” Skylight, their third record, was originally meant to come out on Run for Cover, like Cardinal. The band and label mutually agreed that Pinegrove would self-release Skylight and donate the proceeds to charity.
There is no “right” way to return from such serious allegations; some feel there should be no return at all. It is impossible to ignore the accusations against Hall while listening to Skylight. At times, the album can feel subconsciously remorseful, but this is almost a twisted coincidence. The band insists that Skylight has hardly changed since it was mastered in October 2017, and some songs date back to at least 2015. Skylight opens with “Rings,” an optimistic but cautious declaration of new beginnings and accountability. “I draw a line in my life/Singing, ‘This is the new way I behave now’/And actually live by the shape of that sound,” Hall declares. Though “Rings” quickly continues the self-mythologizing of Cardinal, with references to Pinegrove iconography like ampersands, wings, and geometric shapes, it’s clear that empathy is not so effortless.
Recorded and produced by Hall and guitarist Sam Skinner at a house in upstate New York, Skylight focuses on atmosphere and abstraction. While Cardinal was defined by anthemic eruptions of longing, these 11 songs move patiently and often disregard verse-chorus song structures in favor of loose vignettes. “Paterson & Leo”—which originally appeared as a bonus track on Cardinal’s European re-release that same year—is a wisp of a lullaby about a friendship between two men adrift in their lives. Every instrument, from Levine’s drums to Adan Carlo Feliciano’s bass slows to the stillness of morning, while Hall and keyboardist Nandi Rose Plunkett’s twin harmonies build with each verse until they take flight. (Plunkett, who left Pinegrove’s full-time lineup after Cardinal to focus on her own project, Half Waif, is a brilliant presence here.) In divine moments like “Paterson & Leo” and later, on “Amulets,” each slight note has a defined voice.
Little on Skylight merits the emo-revival label that has trailed the band since their inception. Instead, the group leans into the country tendencies that permeated Cardinal. On the closer “Light On,” Hall’s impassioned yelp melts into a full-on drawl, while a lap steel courtesy of Joshua F. Marré paints a rich wash beneath him. With much of the singalong hooks of Cardinal stripped back, Hall attempts to translucently dissect his limitations here. “I wanna talk about/All the ways/Every example of/The shapes/We use to communicate,” he intones on “Portal.” The recording is distinctly raw with few overdubs, evoking dusty alt-country or an indie-folk record from the early aughts. The effect is modest and discrete, especially on tracks like “Darkness,” a wandering meditation reminiscent of Sheryl Crow in her ’90s prime. On “Angelina,” a fan favorite that has appeared on compilations and live records, the desire gets tangled, but the passion rings clear.
At her 2015 retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Yoko Ono built a free-standing spiral staircase titled “To See the Sky.” As visitors took turns climbing the steps toward a glass skylight—symbolizing infinite promise—the structure rattled. Each quiver seemed to suggest that transcendence never comes without risk. Despite our efforts, Ono explained, “We are not tall enough to touch the sky.” How easy it is, then, to sing about friendship, love, and community, to realize that art cannot account for your actions, to know we are not tall enough to transcend. Skylight closes with Hall looking upwards on the ballad “Light On,” as the band sways from one measure to the next. His voice stretches to a falsetto as he considers a real solution: “I wanna do much better.”
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