Humanity has long recognized that destruction is necessary for creation or reinvention. From the enduring image of a phoenix emerging from the ashes to more tangible forms, like cutting apart a magazine to compile a collage, the act of destruction allows us to start anew.
This connection between annihilation and rebirth directly informs dirt, the latest EP from Meg Duffy’s project Hand Habits. Duffy’s talent as a guitarist is undeniable; they’ve contributed to the work of Kevin Morby, The War on Drugs, Weyes Blood and others as a session or touring guitarist. Their songwriting taps into the human experience in a manner both poetic and effortlessly relatable, as seen in their 2017 debut Wildly Idle (Humble Before the Void) and their 2019 record placeholder. The dirt EP is far shorter than either of these efforts, comprised of two songs and a digital bonus track: lead single “4th of july,” a cover of Neil Young’s “I Believe in You,” and Australian artist Katie Dey’s remix of “what’s the use” (a song that appeared on Duffy’s sophomore album). However, there’s a reason we keep trotting out Shakespeare’s line “Brevity is the soul of wit,” and Hand Habits proves it yet again.
“4th of july” begins warm, intimate and mournful as Duffy strums a guitar and softly tells the story of a catalyst of emotional change. The song is co-produced by Duffy’s roommate Sasami Ashworth, who performs as SASAMI and ranked among Paste’s best new artists of 2019. Ashworth’s shoegaze-inflected sound slowly seeps into “4th of july,” first with shimmers of tambourine and lithe harmonies, then full-on as squealing guitar and random roars of distortion fire up. Pangs of steel guitar float in, keeping the track connected to Duffy’s folk-rock style. “‘4th of july’ feels like trying again, rolling around in the wreckage of the past and finding new ways out of the maze of memory,” Duffy says of the track. They take that quite literally, repurposing language from the title track of placeholder. “Last time that I saw you / Both hands in the dirt / Asking for a photograph / A picture you did not deserve,” they sing on “placeholder” to the person who’s used them. “Both hands in the dirt” becomes a much more hopeful refrain on “4th of july”: “But don’t cry, demolition baby / Always blowing it up / Getting so stuck / Both hands in the dirt.” Duffy acknowledges that the process of self-examination isn’t a sterile one; you have to get in the weeds and the muck to achieve meaningful growth. “4th of july” ends on its opening line, highlighting how our relationship with our past is always iterative. We may think we’re finished letting go of the past, but as time marches on, there’s plenty more reflection to be had.
On After the Gold Rush—one of Paste’s best albums of 1970—Young delivers “I Believe in You” in his own classic style. The bittersweet love song is buoyed by prancing piano and some zinging guitar licks, walking the country-folk-rock tightrope that Young dances across easily. Duffy and their co-producer on the cover, fellow roommate Kyle Thomas (King Tuff), provide their own slightly twisted new take. Warped piano plinks in the background and the guitar chugs along like a rusted freight train. They nod to Young’s country sound with a high-pitched whistle soaring in the background, evoking wide-open spaces criss-crossed with tumbleweed and towering canyons. Deep backing vocals occasionally underlay Duffy’s, reminiscent of those on “Garden Song” by Phoebe Bridgers. “There’s a foundation, and where there’s a foundation there’s opportunity to reimagine structures; physical and otherwise,” Duffy says of the cover—words that they certainly put into practice.
We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention Dey’s remix of “what’s the use.” Vocals are pitched every which way by vocoder, and the hyperpop elements breathe new life into an already-compelling song. Over mechanical throbs of percussion and synth, distorted cries of “What’s the use?” become even more nihilistic. It’s worlds away from the other tracks in terms of sound, but thematically actually fits quite well. “I’ve seen you burn out and start again,” Duffy remarks at the beginning of the track, not unlike the destruction-creation cycle observed on “4th of july” and quite literally applied on the “i believe in you” cover. Dey’s remix is certainly a strange aural bedfellow for the other two, but fits the same overall arc.
Maybe you don’t feel like you have the attention span for a full album right now and, honestly, relatable. Taking a few minutes out of your day to listen to dirt is time well spent, though. If there’s ever been a moment to rest, reflect and prepare to rebuild from the rubble, it’s now.
Clare Martin is a cemetery enthusiast, hibernophile and contributing writer for Paste’s music and comedy sections. She also exercises her love for reality TV at HelloGiggles every now and then. Go harass her on Twitter @theclaremartin.