Albums can exist outside of context. Even as a person that’s connected to the internet 24/7 and controls a Gmail account that receives hundreds of music publicity emails a day, moments still occur when a friend will play a song from their phone of an unsigned artist or a TV show will prominently feature a tune cloaked in mystery that can’t even be Shazamed. These moments still do happen, but for the most part, we live in a world where every song has a story, ever musical note contains the years of experiences that led to its being played, and discovering the mysteries behind them is just a couple Google searches away.
Pinegrove will never really be able to exist outside their own complicated context, and in 2018, that feels like a really good thing. On the heels of the #MeToo movement last year, the band were surprisingly swept up in their own controversy that felt equally confusing and infuriating. But even if I didn’t completely understand what Pinegrove leader Evan Stephens Hall was being accused of and what was forcing him to retreat from the spotlight and hold off releasing their anticipated new album, Skylight, it didn’t really matter. What mattered was solidarity in the moment, awareness that a man’s ability to create art and have an audience is not more important than women’s need to be heard and to feel safe. Getting to the bottom of the Pinegrove case felt distinctly less important than giving whoever felt wronged by the band the respect enough to tune out. There’s so much music in the world, is it really that hard to move on from just this one?
Of course, that’s coming from someone who considers themselves to be a fan of Pinegrove’s much-adored album Cardinal but doesn’t, like, hold that fandom as a core element of my identity. Reading Jenn Pelly’s deep-dive into the Pinegrove situation is a quick reminder of the many young people that do identify that way. They have tattoos on their body that match those of bandleader Hall, they have lyrics in their Twitter bios and closets full of merch. For them, simply abandoning a band for allegations that they didn’t understand wasn’t an easy situation to navigate. For them, the past year has been full of questions, with everyone’s own way of continuing their relationship with Pinegrove’s music a highly personal matter. As Pelly wrote: “We bring ourselves to music… Our experiences dictate what we are comfortable with, what we can possibly forgive, and what we cannot accept.”
The article sheds as much light on the accusations against Hall as we’re likely to get. We know that a mediator describes the incident from the victim’s perspective as follows:
“She and Evan had a brief relationship, and she was in a relationship when it started. She felt that he coerced her into cheating on her partner with him, and she felt that she said no to him several times… and he continued to pursue her.”
We know that Hall thinks the relationship was more mutual, but also that he doesn’t want to negate how the woman experienced him, and he admits he “could have conducted himself better.” We know that his original accuser did not want the allegations of sexual coercion to be made public, that the intention was never to “takedown” the band, and that the year off and therapy that Hall engaged in was her idea as a way to show that he was serious in his contrition. We know that the “multiple victims” that were originally alleged don’t exist in the matter that they were presented, resulting in one of the alleged victims denying as much.
But maybe the most enlightening part of the story comes from Hall admitting that the fans he wants of his band should care about these events. Hall said:
“We don’t want listeners who are like, ‘We don’t care about this sort of thing.’ We care about this sort of thing. I’m way more sympathetic to people who are like, ‘I don’t understand this situation, it seems f*cked up, f*ck this band,’ than people who are like, ‘I don’t understand this situation, f*ck this situation, I love this band.’ We are thoroughly in favor of the dismantling of patriarchal structures, and the movement right now to elevate survivors and victims of abuse. And we are not interested in a listenership that doesn’t care about that.”
The uneasiness that Pinegrove returns to the spotlight is palpable. There hasn’t been a promo campaign ahead of Skylight‘s offering, instead just a casual announcement of the album two days ahead of its public offering is slipped into the Pitchfork article. Hall admits that the album hasn’t been changed in the time since stepping away, so what is being released is a snapshot of a band and songwriter that very much doesn’t exist anymore. Skylight functions as a glimpse of a musician before he was undoubtedly changed by his own actions and the subsequent fallout, and unsurprisingly it’s a record that’s inherent strength could have easily catapulted the band to the next level of their career had the circumstances surrounding it been different.
Skylight is a more mature offering than Cardinal that finds Hall both defining his songwriting style and breaking free from expectations, still homespun in its fidelity but at times more expansive and brave than anything that Hall has released before. In that vein, we get the last song the band shared before removing itself from the spotlight, “Intrepid,” as well as the sprawling album opener “Rings.” They are songs not indebted to traditional pop structures and expected payoffs, instead allowing the tension of Hall’s lyrics and meandering builds to provide emotional payoffs that sink their claws in deeper with repeat listens.
Balancing these songs are a number of snapshot tracks, easily the album’s most melodically direct and easy to grasp moments, but not lasting more than a minute or two. They are strange inclusions in that they reveal just how capable Hall is at writing from a familiar place without feeling the need to take his songs to their most marketable conclusions. “Paterson & Leo” builds its comforting nostalgia in a tiny moment, a walk between two people who love each other “enough to say it.” “Angelina” is even more slight in stature, asking questions bigger than the song seems capable of holding in its tiny hands. Others, like “Thanksgiving” and “Amulets” feel more like sketches of future songs than completed works, further sculpting the record into a specific moment in time, a place that’s impossible to return to for both the band and the listener.
While everything in the record’s half-hour feels wise beyond its years, “Darkness” splits the difference between the record’s two directions and best provides a roadmap for how Pinegrove could continue on. There’s a chugging, classic-rock vibe to its structure but with the kind of self-reflection that’s rare in something that sounds so anthemic. “Saying I’m happy when I’m not / finding roaches in the pot / O I got darkness on my mind,” Hall sings with enough yearning to momentarily forget he’s quoting Sublime, a lyrical nod that reminds that loneliness and self-honesty have been central to music, both cool and uncool, for as long as he’s been alive.
Skylight is full of music that’s easy to imagine the loyal Pinenuts shouting along to at the shows, that could fill rooms as they grow to accommodate a bigger fanbase, and that could follow Hall as he continues to hone his craft. But whether that will ever happen now, whether the fans find the newfound clarity of his alleged transgressions enough to forgive him and move on, that remains to be seen. It’s easy to see things both ways, and I’d be lying to say that listening to a Pinegrove album at the same time a woman gets grilled in front of a national audience about a sexual assault feels, well, conflicting. Hall is hardly in the same class as many of the #MeToo slimeballs, but it also doesn’t feel like my place to draw those distinctions.
However Skylight is received, it’s with the hope that those who have been hurt by Hall’s public presence aren’t further damaged by his return, and that those who are willing to let Hall back into their lives feel that justice was served as best as it could. For me, the line from album closer “Lights Out” echoes long after the album ends: “I wanna be better to you / I wanna do much better.” It’s a line that I believe from Hall, in that moment, and I believe it still rings true to him in light of everything that has followed. But Hall would be the first to say that an opposite reaction is fair, too. It might not matter that Hall wants to be better, what matters is that the album will be impossible to listen to without the context surrounding it. The decision is with the fans, and there is no wrong answer for how they proceed.
Skylight is out now and is self-released. Buy it here. All proceeds will be split evenly between Musicares, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and the Voting Rights Project.