Music

Half Waif’s ‘Lavender’ Is An Acrobatic Stunner That Sticks The Landing

Tonje Thilesen

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The best songwriters — which Half Waif‘s Nandi Rose Plunkett can undoubtedly count herself among after the release of last week’s vibrant, immediate Lavender — pepper their songs with lines that land with both feet firmly on the ground. Their words float, twirl, and descend like gymnasts. But the majesty of it all isn’t in how the words travel, it’s in how they wind up affecting you.

Throughout Lavender, Plunkett lets loose insightful nuggets that are meant to both reveal her own intimate thoughts as they are to evoke something in the listener. When she asks repeatedly “is this all there is?” on the opening track “Burning Lavender,” it’s as much a specific query fraught from a moment of feeling lost in the world as it is a thought posed to everyone giving her record a spin. And in the most acrobatic way, it sticks the landing.

For people that have been following the Brooklyn songwriter’s career, which has spanned a number of Bandcamp offerings in addition to two full-lengths, 2014’s Kotekan and 2016’s Probable Depths, observations of Plunkett’s lyrical and compositional excellence aren’t some grand revelation. But tracing her career to date has shown a steady honing of her craft, with her albums coming at a regular enough clip that it is worth noting that she seems to improve proportionally with each subsequent release.

“For me, Lavender as a whole feels like a refining,” she told Stereogum last month, “honing my ability as a producer and arranger, but also lyrically.” And she didn’t need to point this out for the upward trajectory to become audible. Look no further than the entry of percussion two-thirds of the way through “Burning Lavender,” when Plunkett amps up the drama like never before. Showmanship is now just another card in her deck.

That Plunkett’s craft sounds so assured and in its right place on this, her third album, juxtaposes her longtime lyrical conceit of searching for a place in the world. The daughter of an Indian refugee mother and an Irish/Swiss-American father, Plunkett’s lyrics still strive to plant roots. On this album she is “trying to give a name to the place where my heart is” at one moment and, just a few songs later, being inspired by a short trip to her old home on “Back To Brooklyn.” By the album’s conclusion, when she is “on the road to nowhere” on “Ocean Scope,” it sounds like being between places, being disenfranchised, is, in a way, a source of comfort. When you’ve spent your life as an alien, floating through world might be as comforting as anywhere else.

Recording with her bandmates Adan Carlo and Zack Levine, Lavender still never feels like a band project, even when both those collaborators are helping flesh out songs. That isn’t necessarily a knock on Carlo and Levine, but just a commentary on how dialed in on Plunkett’s perspective the collection is. Whether she is showing us with details of her grandmother’s garden from where the album title comes from or explicitly telling us how she feels, it’s a songwriter album, even if it is served through the lens of a band. Even in press materials for the record, she is not shy about explicitly laying out her themes of the record, specifically the impermanence of things, be it relationships or life itself. “These endings are markers of time and growth, small personal apocalypses that pockmark our days,” she says. “And yet there is more to come when the terror subsides; even the night itself — that great darkness — must end and give way to new light.”

The album lands closer to the light than the darkness, and even when it is concerned about the endings of things, it can’t help but feel closer to a beginning. That’s a testament to just how in-the-moment and inspired Plunkett is throughout. Her pop leanings come fully forward on “Keep It Out,” where a ballet dance between off-kilter rhythms and pristine vocals find a way to coexistence in gooey warmth by the song’s conclusion. “Lilac House” finds a similar quilted comfort in pop melody when a plucky verse finds its footing for the realization “I’ve been looking on the bright side for my whole life / Now I’m looking for trouble.” There’s no concession to her aesthetic or vision for these moments — in fact, Lavender is as idiosyncratic as ever. But the Half Waif project now feels more secure in the latter part of the synthpop tag, with Plunkett demonstrating she has more than the necessary chops to pull it off.

Many might be drawn to Half Waif because of Plunkett’s former affiliation with the indie rock band Pinegrove, which went on hiatus last year (her bandmates are still part of that band, as well). It’s a connection that must be conflicting for the songwriter, considering the sexism she encountered as a member of the band, and the fact that the project has taken a break after its leader admitted to sexual misconduct. But this album shows that the decision to focus solely on Half Waif has already paid dividends, with this album standing as her biggest accomplishment yet as an artist. Every lyrical leap off the pommel horse, each combination of words that serves as a backflip, all of the lines that stick to listeners like chalk on sweaty hands — they are all exercises in grace. With Half Waif, Plunkett deserves her own spot on the podium, a shiny round trophy hanging on her neck.

Half Waif’s Lavender is out now. Buy it here.

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