By Annie Parnell, Contributing Writer
On their new three-song EP dirt, indie-folk guitarist Meg Duffy’s solo project Hand Habits explores the intricacies of queer love over a gritty Americana sound.
“I’m interested in queering relationships in my music,” they explain, noting that in queer dynamics “the lines between romance and friendship are often blurred.” This comfort in complexity comes through in the music. Compared in the past to Adrianne Lenker and Big Thief, Hand Habits has become recognizable for the way their gentle melodies interplay with anxious, heartwrenching lyrics: on their 2019 album placeholder, the heartbreak ballad “jessica” stays gracious throughout, repeating “I forgive you” over wafting strings, despite the anguished chorus, “You shattered my reality.”
On dirt, however, it’s clear that some grit has stayed in. Clocking in at just under 10 minutes, dirt begins with “4th of july,” a visceral plea to a self-destructive loved one. It starts slow and nostalgic, its first lyrics unfurling over slowly picked guitars. The stakes rise quickly, though, with a chorus that begins “Don’t cry, demolition baby,” and bemoans the way the song’s subject always winds up trapped by their own fears. Over the incendiary imagery of earthquakes, a torn-down factory, and exploding fireworks over a mountainside, Duffy begs for change from someone who seems too afraid to do it, emitting a plaintive wail that their beloved is “waiting for the world to go by” over mounting bluesy riffs. At the song’s most cathartic point, they urge, “You might as well try” while simultaneously lamenting the fact that their beloved is still stuck “with both hands in the dirt.”
Immediately following “4th of july” is a cover of Neil Young’s “I Believe in You,” originally released on the 1970 album After the Gold Rush. Once again, Duffy lets loose here, the track ringing with deep distorted chords and a contrastingly twinkly piano backdrop. Juxtaposed with “4th of july,” the Hand Habits version makes the sense of empathy that prevails in their music all the more vivid. Relating the deep-seated conflict of trusting another person to love you when you don’t love yourself, the cover seems to suggest the other side of the turbulent pairing in the EP’s first song: the chorus’s bitter question, “Now that you made yourself love me, do you think I can change it in a day?” is both angry and earnest in Duffy’s hands.
The EP’s final song, “what’s the use — Katie Dey Remix” creates a direct callback to Hand Habits’ earlier work, reimagining a track from placeholder with the mixing talents of Melbourne-based pop artist Katie Dey. Through this digital-only bonus track, the songs on dirt continue their conversation with each other. The autotune and synths are jarring among Duffy’s rootsy influences, but the new mix emphasizes the emotional turmoil in the original’s lyrics: the distorted vocal effects and mounting hyperpop guitars when Duffy sings, “What’s the use if you’re not trying to forgive” convey clearly the frustration at the song’s center. Wounded and raw, the confessions, “I lost my identity inside of you” and. “Because of you I’m capable of more,” provide a fitting conclusion to the story that this EP seems to tell, suggesting both a reckoning with the past and a healing sense of forgiveness.
Unlike in Hand Habits’ earlier work, however, there’s no need to stay gentle. On dirt, the absolution comes with catharsis; the sentiment is just as understanding and reflective, but the pain it’s taken to get there is all the more upfront.
You can listen to dirt now on Spotify.