The late American songwriter Harlan Howard infamously described country music as “three chords and the truth”, an ideal that Pinegrove – a band that represents a longing for purity and emotional honesty – would no doubt cosign. So it’s perhaps no surprise that their fourth album, their most mature work yet, is a weathered and dusty ode to the genre: “I’ll be true as I can through this circumstance / But it’s tiring,” sighs frontman Evan Hall over slide guitar on melancholy ballad ‘Hairpin’.
Pinegrove’s earnest and introspective music has always leaned towards country, from their emotionally excoriating lyrics to the jangling guitar ballads woven through their previous record, 2018’s ‘Skylight’, but this fourth album – their first on Rough Trade – represents something of a reinvention. The New Jersey six-piece’s pop-punk-inspired 2016 breakthrough ‘Cardinal’ saw them widely pegged as spiritual successors to emo; here they slow down for a more measured and meditative approach. Over the finger-picked acoustic guitar of ‘No Drugs’, Hall makes a pledge to clarity: “No drugs and alcohol today / I wanna remember everything we talk about.”
There’s a sense of stillness to ‘Marigold’. “I woke up the same as yesterday / With no news of any kind,” Hall sings over slowly marching percussion on ‘Endless’. The languid instrumentation evokes the image of someone picking up their feet, their body heavy and mind clouded at the prospect of facing another day. When, on the loosely strummed ‘Alcove’, Hall croons, “my friends in the east / They bring me peace”, it sounds longing rather than triumphant – his friends sound far away, the singer isolated. ‘Neighbour’, which veers towards country pastiche, combines lolloping piano with pastoral – and almost comically doomy – lyrics (“mid-sized opossum in front of my house dying / Collided with a vehicle”). This well-realised stuff, but Pinegrove appear to have aged about two decades since ‘Skylight’.
Well, that album was delayed by 12 months when the band entered hiatus after Hall informed fans that he’d been accused of “sexual coercion”. The exact nature of his alleged transgression was left unclear, and subsequent accounts have done little to clarify matters, but it seems that this was a complicated situation in which many different voices purported to represent the ‘truth’ and Hall doubted own interpretation of events. Ultimately, Pinegrove sound wearied by the whole sorry episode. It sometimes seems as though they’ve tried to record an album so boring and sensible that no one could think of anything to say about it.
There are flashes of their former vitality – the moment in which ‘No Drugs’ blossoms into twinkly guitar notes fluttering in out of another’s orbit, Hall insisting “I wanna feel good”; and the emo-influenced chug of ‘Phase’ – but there’s no knock-out moment to match the life-affirming sucker punch of the band’s most accomplished work. It’s still almost impossible to hear their best-known song, the ‘Cardinal’ track ‘Old Friends’, and not be blindsided by the heavyweight lyrics: “I saw Leah on the bus a few months ago / I saw some old friends at her funeral… I should call my parents when I think of them / I should tell my friends when I love them.” The raw pain and wide-eyed wonder of youth have been replaced by the dull ache of old wounds.
This latest album sees Pinegrove enter into a new, more adult phase of their career, their flashy radicalism muted into a more subtle, less immediate aesthetic. It doesn’t sound like the work of a band who might inspire legions of fans (among them, apparently, Kristen Stewart) to get tattooed with their logo, but these world-weary yet radio-friendly ballads imply the band might achieve longevity after all. Three chords and the truth never gets old, and ‘Marigold’ vividly paints the knottiness of adulthood.
Release date: January 17
Record label: Rough Trade