The third track on Hand Habits’ great new album, placeholder, comes on like a folk song, with Meg Duffy finger-picking soft solo acoustic patterns. The effect is peaceful, calming, with a hint of something else underneath the surface.
Then, about 40 seconds into “pacify,” Duffy begins singing, and the song swerves in another direction. There are drums and a bass in the mix now, sounding more like a band, but Duffy still feels alone and low: “Far from where it all began/Blind to consequence/Silence from the only one who understands.” Their guitar loops through backward scrapes and upside-down flutters, creating an arty ice-planet ambience that enhances the warmth in Duffy’s voice.
There’s real skill and subtlety in Duffy’s playing throughout “pacify,” which makes sense given their growing reputation as a first-rate session guitarist for acts like Kevin Morby, Weyes Blood, and William Tyler. In a revealing anecdote from an interview with Pitchfork’s Quinn Moreland earlier this week, Duffy discussed the creative trade-offs involved in that line of work: After playing a pained, gorgeous slide-guitar part on the War on Drugs’ 2017 single “Holding On,” they ended up sidelined on a national TV performance of the song. “It was cool, but sort of strange to be like, Wow, this song people know the words to and the slide part is such a huge part of the song and I’m just playing the acoustic guitar,” Duffy said. “As a session player I think you have to be okay with that.”
There are no such compromises on placeholder, an album full of songs that showcase Duffy’s gifts front and center. “pacify” is one of the best examples, a song about uncertainty and guilt — “I don’t want to pacify you with excuses,” goes the chorus — that eloquently mirrors those feelings in sound. In the song’s wordless coda, the acoustic guitar figure comes back, this time with a little more distortion around it. It sounds like acceptance.