Hand Habits: Fun House
The music video for “Clean Air,” a single from Hand Habits’ new album Fun House, unfolds like a magic trick. Meg Duffy, a guitarist and singer who made their name as an accompanist for Weyes Blood and the War on Drugs, ambles moodily on stage, clutching a microphone as if about to deliver a sermon. Then, as the strum of an acoustic guitar picks up, breezy and gentle, the audience explodes with energy. Sweat drips, bodies sway, a pit opens up; at one point, Duffy starts crowd surfing. The joke is obvious, though it clarifies something deeper about the disconnect between what’s felt and what’s spoken aloud.
This particular tension—understated indie rock with the emotional force of a scream—has informed all of Duffy’s music over the past few years. Their last full-length project as Hand Habits, 2019’s placeholder, felt knotty and interior; Duffy has described the record as being “impulsive”—the product of writing while on tour. The lyrics were anxious but also aimless, running up against impossible questions. “What’s the use if you’re not trying to forgive?” they asked, lingering on the feeling of frustration.
On Fun House, Duffy approaches a sense of resolution. “I could never hear her, no matter how loud/Screaming, ‘I’ll always be the anchor you drag around,’” Duffy sings on “No Difference.” While the song courses with doubt, the persistent emotional block stalling a relationship, it never curdles into bitterness or anger. Near the end of the song, Duffy is joined by background vocals from several collaborators, including Perfume Genius and Big Thief’s James Krivchenia, helping disperse some of that unease, relying on community for reassurance.
Many of these songs twist feelings of anxiety into comforting new shapes. Late-album highlight “The Answer” is a triptych survey of a relationship; what starts as a resigned, whispery swell is interrupted by a different time signature that works like a counter-argument. When the initial cadence returns after a moment of near-silence, it’s as if Duffy has finally come around to their own side. Even amid this psychic back-and-forth, they sound assured. “Drink the mist/My body, a question that hangs on her lips/I know the answer/The answer, it’s always mine,” they sing, backed by a silvery tableau of plucked guitar and tambourine. The meaning of each section pivots on that phrase: “I know the answer.” The answer isn’t always the same, and it isn’t always what you’re looking for, but it always is.
After the folky seriousness of placeholder, produced by indie rock stalwart Brad Cook, the relatively varied sounds of Fun House represent a fresh start for Duffy. With production from Sasami Ashworth, Duffy adds woodwinds and digital pulses to the guitar-forward sounds of their earlier work. “Aquamarine” is drunk and dizzy, a head-out-the-window, hair-in-the-wind jam, and a bold foray into poppier sounds. It’s also among the darkest moments on the album—a stark confrontation with the facts of their mother’s suicide. “I didn’t know she played guitar ’til I turned 27,” they sing, reflecting on details kept hidden from them as a child and how the truth ends up surfacing anyway.
There’s a similar ethos of unlikely celebration in the opener, “More Than Love,” which begins with a quote from a Bruce Springsteen classic and peaks in a halo of sun-streaked guitar. Duffy has nailed this sort of wild climax before, but mostly for other artists. Here, their guitar playing introduces a uniquely personal catharsis, a creative breakthrough you can feel in real time. Coming to terms with their own past, Duffy arrives at a cohesive survey of the formula they’ve been refining throughout their discography. Fun House embodies all Duffy’s gifts at once, bringing their virtuosic talent into their own wheelhouse, on their own terms.
Buy: Rough Trade
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