Concert preview: Pinegrove constructs an elegant labyrinth with Cardinal
Cardinal, the sophomore full-length from New Jersey-based Pinegrove, opens with the narrator lost both in thought and in place, charting a meandering course between soft-lit trees as old missteps, resentments and regrets rise steadily to the fore.
"I keep going over it over and over," frontman Evan Stephens Hall sings. "My steps iterate my shame."
It's a process that repeats itself throughout the album, with the accumulated footsteps allowing time for reflection on past follies, Hall singing: "Was walking with my neck out"; "I'd pace around the place so quiet in myself"; "The truth is I lost all track of time/ And I wound up wandering."
According to Hall, these lines mirror his creative process, where songs are gradually conceived, shaped and edited during long evening strolls in a park near his home.
"I think there's something self-referential or meta-referential about the speaker in the songs, because it's someone who's quite like me, and who's writing a song in their head," said Hall, who joins his bandmates in opening for Into It. Over It. at Ace of Cups on Tuesday, April 26. "When I'm writing, the process is really a nightly endeavor, and it has a lot to do with being outside. I live in Monclair by this park that I love to visit … called Brookdale Park. It was designed by Frederick Law [Olmsted], who did Central Park in New York. He's the only park designer I could name, but for some reason I love his work. I think I draw inspiration from it, actually. The very elegant labyrinth he makes has been part of my process."
That term - "elegant labyrinth" - could easily be applied to Pinegrove's music. Though simply constructed, the indie-rock collective's Americana-tinged songs are rich in both lyrical and musical detail, creating a more immersive experience than the album's deceptive eight-song, 30-minute runtime would suggest. Throughout, Hall's words call back to or reference other moments on the record - a tangled lyrical web the singer is still unraveling.
"Sometimes different connections on the album will reveal themselves retroactively in ways I didn't anticipate," said Hall, 26, who studied poetry and English at nearby Kenyon College. "For example, there's a line in 'Size of the Moon' where it's like, 'We're good at things and so are a lot of our friends,' and that seems to play off [the songs] 'New Friends' and 'Old Friends' in a way I didn't really expect. Also, the line 'If I did what I wanted then why do I feel so bad?' in that same song seems to speak to the chorus in 'Old Friends' - 'I do only what I want to' - which was not deliberate. It's more an emergent property, or an artifact of thinking about the same things and investigating the same types of questions over and over in different ways, because I'm obsessive like that."
Hall, who was born in New York and moved to Montclair at age 3, has long had a fascination with language. It's an interest that surfaces in his word selection throughoutCardinal, which sets Scrabble-busters like solipsistic, labyrinthine and sublimate alongside simpler, more matter-of-fact admissions. "I should call my parents when I think of them," he surmises on "Old Friends." "I should tell my friends when I love them."
"I'm interested in really all branches of thinking about language: Linguistics, phonetics, language theory. And I've always been attracted to learning new words, and to the sounds of words and unfamiliar sounds," said Hall, who started writing and recording his first songs at age 6, even recording alongside his composer father in a lo-fi guitar-and-drums duo dubbed the Reptiles. "There's something special about words and about communication. It seems to be a pretty specific interest of mine in lyrical investigation. It's one of the ways I engage with the world, for better or worse."
Even so, Hall remains a fierce self-editor, generally refraining from flowery, ornate prose and often striking a more plainspoken tone. Indeed, some of the album's more shattered moments derive their power from the details he omits. Witness the unspoken events shading this couplet: "I saw Leah on the bus a few months ago/ I saw some old friends at her funeral."
"I think that part of my lyrical strategy has to do with being as economical as possible," Hall said. "I don't want to be redundant, ever, and I want each line to be able to advance the song narratively."
Early on, Hall said he had a tendency to write songs for his own enjoyment, equating the process with "making a puzzle for myself." Now, with a new audience flocking to Pinegrove's music, the singer is beginning to feel a bit of the Spider-Man effect: With great power comes great responsibility.
"A lot of people coming to shows have communicated to me that our music is important to them, and I think that underscores a sense of responsibility to the listener to be honest and to be as compassionate as I can, and to write about things that matter," he said. "I guess I'm becoming more and more aware of the listenership that cares about what I'm saying, and I do feel a responsibility to try to speak to that and to say things I think are important. I'm more likely to try to signify outwards now, I think."
Ace of Cups
6 p.m. Tuesday,
2619 N. High St.,
Into It. Over It.,
The World Is a Beautiful
Place & I Am No Longer
Afraid to Die,