On Eye on the Bat, Palehound Exhales

The Brooklyn band’s fourth album sees El Kempner exposing their most tender emotions while embracing them

Music Reviews Palehound
On Eye on the Bat, Palehound Exhales

“I don’t want to see the other path,” El Kempner declares as “Independence Day,” a highlight of Palehound’s fourth album, Eye on the Bat, draws to a close. This profound denial comes amidst the wreckage of a multi-year relationship, in a scene bathed in the watercolor reflections of 4th of July fireworks. Kempner is closing their eyes to both the future and the past, refusing to let themselves think about how life with this partner could have been and pushing aside any idea of what their life will be like now. Embracing the unpleasant moments has long been a hallmark of Palehound’s music, but Kempner has never felt so present within them. The aforementioned breakup is integral to how the songs featured here came to be written, but also how they are presented. They’re unbridled in their rawness, their messy nature and some of the most interesting stories that Kempner has ever written.

Eye on the Bat is the first proper Palehound album since 2019’s Black Friday, which saw the band lean into warmer, alt-country sounds. It’s also the first we’ve heard from Kempner since their collaborative album with Jay Som’s Melina Duterte under the name Bachelor. Kempner told Guitar World recently that making this album wouldn’t have been possible without having worked with Duterte, thanks to the confidence boost she gave them. That confidence emanates from Kempner on a subtextual level, even if it’s not apparent in the writing itself. It takes bravery to bare one’s soul so greatly.

For their fourth album, Kempner snuck off to the Catskills to record with Sam Owens (Sam Evian) at Flying Cloud Recordings. Flying Cloud (where, notably, Big Thief recorded some of Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You). In much the same way that Dragon broke Big Thief open, letting them exhale and reexamine their artistry on a fundamental level, Eye on the Bat signals that a similar transformation has taken place for Palehound. We see Kempner at their most open, no longer using the poeticism of their songwriting as a gilded mask to obfuscate the mess inside. We’ve seen moments of this relatable honesty before in resonant, real-life details—the blueberry glazed donut in “If You Met Her” comes to mind—but songs like “Independence Day” and “Good Sex” present their vision as plainspoken storytelling.

“Good Sex,” the album opener, plays out less like a song and more like a story a close friend might tell you as the two of you catch up over dinner. It’s a tale of well-meaning plans being foiled by circumstances. Kempner wore a corset for their partner’s birthday, only for their partner to spend the evening fielding calls from family and friends. It’s funny, sad and stark in its revealing nature, with Kempner leaning into their disappointment but never losing any wisdom. Singles “The Clutch” and “My Evil” seem to grapple with different aspects of Kempner’s breakup. The latter looks at remorse, and Kempner is introspective while examining their capacity to cause harm. They treat the acrid parts of their personality as though they’re a separate entity that follows them through life. They’re just trying to manage living with it. The former is more anxious, a soaring rock song about the moments that lead up to something as damaging and sudden as the end of a relationship: “If you release the clutch we’ll both come to a screeching halt / It’s a punch in the gut.”

The title track, one of the record’s finest moments, tells the story of time spent on tour by presenting vignettes of what they’re doing amid many hours in transit—making sandwiches in the van, pissing behind the van and headbanging to Black Sabbath. The sinewy, wandering guitar line at its core is as wide and open as the roads before them. “Eye on the Bat” is the latest in a long line of Palehound songs that, despite not having traditional hooks, are infectious and groove their way into your head. Songs like “Cinnamon” and “Carnations” find the band needing nothing but an ambitious guitar part and melody to come across as something massive.

Perhaps the most experimental song in the band’s catalog thus far is “U Want It U Got It.” Written entirely by Kempner and bandmate Larz Brogan, it’s a punchy, rhythmic oddity. Over a bouncy acoustic guitar and skittering drum machine, Kempner is a people pleaser to a fault. “You want it you got it / I wash my back so you can eat off it / You want it you got it / Urge to collapse, knelt and fought it” They sing amidst the chaotic arrangement. Whether the song feels at home on the record is debatable, but it serves as a microcosm for it all the same. It’s a tense endeavor wading into unknown territory, nevertheless projecting raw confidence. It shows us a band that isn’t afraid to push themselves. And, a decade in, that’s no small feat.

Eric Bennett is a music critic in Philadelphia with bylines at Pitchfork, Post-Trash and The Alternative. They are also a co-host of Endless Scroll, a weekly podcast covering the intersection of music and internet culture. You can follow them on Twitter @violet_by_hole.

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