Album Review: Hand Habits – Fun House

[Saddle Creek; 2021]

Titling your album Fun House brings with it certain expectations or connotations. Of course there’s The Stooges’ classic album looming in the background, but Hand Habits is probably never going to make an album that muscular and capital R Rock (although Meg Duffy has proven themselves an excellent guitarist in their stints backing Perfume Genius and Kevin Morby). Moreover, a fun house suggests fun house mirrors – those that reflect back your appearance in warped and unusual ways. It would be easy to make the connection between these warped visages and Duffy’s own experiences as a trans person – but Fun House is more about what’s changing on the inside rather than the visible outside. 

There’s also the fact that Duffy created Fun House with Sasami Ashworth, who helped push the songwriter to warp and enhance the songs into something fairly unusual for the Hand Habits project. That being said, these adornments – violins, synths, pulses, backing vocals and the occasional woodwind – only embolden the already-established Hand Habits sound, rather than overhaul it entirely. This is still unmistakably Meg Duffy in all their quietly profound brilliance.

Fun House is a series of lessons learned the hard way, and Duffy is not letting themselves off the hook without wringing the pain and passion from them first. In excavating deeply-held truths, Duffy often focuses intently on a miniscule moment and the songwriter has a natural tendency of coming at these recollections from a pessimistic perspective.

Often, they revolve around tough relationship circumstances. “I needed more than loving you” they announce on the breezy opener, while subtle electronics propel the song forward, leaving a former flame in the past. Later, they flip the script and repeat “I don’t need anything from you” in unison with Perfume Genius on the lilting “Just To Hear You”, yet the regret is palpable – you get the feeling that Duffy would give anything to get to feel this person again. “I can no longer stand at the gates of your love” they announce on the anthemic “Clean Air” – when it’s clear that this person’s love is what Duffy needs to find some self-worth.

Elsewhere, the “you” of Duffy’s songs is more amorphous, a general term for anything or anyone outside themselves – or perhaps the parts of themselves they find it hard to accept. Perhaps the biggest sonic departure on the record with its prime use of bubbling synths and a danceable beat, “Aquamarine” sees Duffy skipping through a series of historic recollections of witnessing drunken men, suicide, and temper tantrums, but ultimately seems to be an oblique origin story as they come back to the question “who am I?”

The beautiful “No Difference” will please fans of placeholder, as it harks back to the folk-centric Hand Habits sound but bolstered by more production nous, and this return to the familiar suits Duffy’s most confident lyrical turn as they announce “there is no difference between you and me / there is only your reflection, it’s me you couldn’t see.” A similar quiet power is employed on the following “Graves”, as trickles of piano and wisps of guitar underscore the self admonishment “don’t go digging up graves”. 

The Neil Young-esque “Concrete & Feathers” tackles the thorny issue of intimacy with a back-and-forth narrative of closeness and confusion, with the singer ultimately demanding “clean it up” as the guitar catches fire in a fit of passion. It’s a thread that’s picked up again on the closing “Control”, a softly-lit number where Duffy takes us to a private moment, describing a partner getting undressed and proposing “maybe all you really need is a friend / someone to call you on your shit.” The song – and the album – conclude with Duffy repeating “I can change, I can change” – yet it’s unclear whether this is a healthy determination or not.

Perhaps that’s the point. Duffy writes in such a way that sometimes there’s no definitive answer on where they land, or what their message is supposed to be – that’s for each individual to discover for themselves. Hand Habits’ music is the kind where there are no certainties; it’s all searching with the occasional discovery, but the detail of the journey is the beauty. Duffy would undoubtedly approve of any honest interpretation of their songs. As they sing on “Clean Air”, “can’t deny your point of view” – they would never want to, either.

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