Much of 2020 was awful but the new music released in this Year of Endless Sorrows™ wasn’t. To celebrate, rather than posting one single article about the year in music, I’m going to post a new piece each day this week. Monday through Thursday will cover my four favorite albums of the year and Friday will provide a list of additional new releases that I’ve enjoyed in 2020, a year that—despite one or two really great moments—can go ahead and just end already.
I was driving home and I was crying. “I don’t know how,” Evan Stephens Hall sang, “but I’m thinking it’ll all work out.” I wanted desperately to believe him, and somewhere deep inside of me I did. I had to. He was right. But it didn’t feel like it then and, honestly, it doesn’t feel like it now. Then, I was leaving the canine oncologist. None of the treatments had worked, not the chemo, not the steroids, not the pseudo-scientific supplements. Elly, the dog that Caitlin and I had rescued back when we were 24-year old kids, wasn’t going to get better. Eight days later, four weeks to the day before the ten-year anniversary of her adoption, she was gone. I know that pets die, I know that many people don’t believe that this is the kind of loss that merits substantial grief. Caitlin and I are not those people. This has been fucking terrible. “I don’t know how,” I tell myself, trying to believe the truth that I know is in Hall’s words, “but I’m thinking it’ll all work out.”
Loving any Pinegrove album, particularly Marigold, is a complicated affair. Shortly before the release of Pinegrove’s sophomore album, Skylight, Hall—who is the band’s singer and principal songwriter—announced that he had been accused of sexual coercion, a claim that he did not deny. At the request of his accuser, Hall underwent therapy and abstained from touring for a year. Skylight was delayed for a similar period. Hall appears to be contrite but who can be sure? And what burden of judgment falls to his listeners? I don’t know. Marigold is the first album that Hall wrote after these accusations became public and it’s hard not to see their impact in several of the record’s tracks, particularly the swelling “Alcove,” the first verse of which seems to acquiesce to his accuser, while the second verse is defiant and the third resigned. When Hall sings, “My friends in the east / They bring me peace / But they need release / I’ll go if you want,” it’s hard not to hear a vilified man who finds comfort in his friends but realizes that his presence, and the guilt associated with it, weighs heavily on that support structure.
But here’s the thing: Art doesn’t belong to its creators, at least not entirely. When I listen to Hall sing, a small part of me knows that there’s a background to his words that is likely rooted in an abusive relationship and its fallout, but most of me ignores that and appropriates his words and performances for my own life and experience. It’s a selfish act, not caring about Hall save for how his words can be used for my own purposes, but it’s how I’ve almost always interacted with art. Of course, it bears noting that not every potential Pinegrove listener will be capable of, or interested in, this approach given Hall’s past actions. Undoubtedly, my privilege as a white male in a position of authority—not unlike Hall—gives me greater freedom in separating Hall’s art from his transgressions. I try to bolster my position with the words of Kwame Anthony Appiah, the New York Times’ resident Ethicist, who recently wrote that “It is clearly possible to detach an aesthetic experience from the moral offenses of its creators.” But even though that’s a position that I’ve staked out before, repeatedly, I’m not sure that it helps here. Listening to Marigold is complicated. Full stop.
For those who are able to access and address it, the positive side of that complication is truly wonderful. “Dotted Line” and “The Alarmist” are two of the best songs not only of 2020 but in recent memory. “Alcove,” for all its complications—and sometimes because of them—is a remarkable composition. Across Marigold, the performances of Hall and his bandmates are emotive and expressive in a way that few bands ever achieve. This mix of songwriting and performance is why we listen, why we look to other people to document and perform their lives for the express purpose of enriching ours. In Marigold’s centerpiece, “Endless,” Hall muses that’s “it’s an honor just to feel this way” and, staring at my grief, I know it to be true. The pain I feel at Elly’s loss is a pain born out of love and devotion, out of the kind of bond that I am lucky to have had. It is an honor. “When this is over,” Hall continues, “hold me forever.” Caitlin and I don’t need to have written the words because we have lived them. And that makes them ours.