You’ve likely made up your mind about Pinegrove by now. The sincere indie rock outfit from Montclair, New Jersey has been under intense scrutiny since lead singer Evan Stephens Hall’s admission of sexual coercion in late 2017 via a Facebook post. The details, still vague with few concrete facts about certain events, were thrown even further into disarray following SPIN’s 2018 report about the mishandling of these allegations by Punk Talks, a Philadelphia mental health organization that aims to support musicians. And more than two years later, new information is still coming out: The New Yorker recently confirmed the woman in question worked in the band’s crew on tour. “She says that [the tour] atmosphere, combined with Hall’s power as the leader of the band, gave rise to a romantic relationship that she now sees as implicitly manipulative,” Kelefa Sanneh wrote in that piece. “‘He really had no control over me,’ the woman, who wished to remain anonymous, said. ‘But, in the bubble of tour, I really felt like he did.’”
Unlike other accusations since the advent of the #MeToo hashtag, this one is much less cut-and-dry, existing in a murky gray area. And how you perceive the situation is entirely up to you: To paraphrase a tweet from the New Yorker piece, we live in an age where more music is steadily released than is possible to consume in a single lifetime, and if you’d rather just move on from Pinegrove and listen to literally anyone else, that’s your prerogative. But you might miss out on perhaps the first great indie rock record of the decade.
2018’s Skylight arrived after the Facebook post but was entirely written and recorded prior to the controversy, meaning Marigold is the first true collection that addresses (or doesn’t) those events. And while Hall’s lyrics were already over-analyzed by Pinegrove’s rabid fanbase prior to the allegations, they require an extra level of scrutiny this time around. “Hall is quick to remind people that his songs are not necessarily reflections of his own life,” Sanneh wrote, though it’s difficult not to read them as such.
That said, he almost loses us with an eye-roll of an opening line: “Ignore the wreckage on the shoulder.” In listening to a Pinegrove record post-November 2017, particularly this one, it’s quite impossible to look past Hall’s admission of sexual coercion, let alone “ignore” it. Though the song, “Dotted Line,” details a drive into Manhattan on one of the coldest days of the year during a fit of self-doubt, even the thought that the band might be urging us to look past these allegations, particularly on the opening lyric of the record, is jaw-dropping. But that’s likely not the case, and if you’re willing to keep going, you’ll be rewarded: The song ends on an optimistic note with Pinegrove’s best sing-along moment since “Old Friends,” as Hall, backed by former Pinegrove member and Half Waif lead singer Nandi Rose, croons, “‘Cause I don’t know how / But I’m thinking it’ll all work out.”
Although “Dotted Line” initially shares a lot in common with “Old Friends”—the crunchy, choppy guitar line that leads into a full-band groove—it eventually diverges to showcase a newer, cleaner, better-produced iteration of the band. Marigold was recorded in the same room as Skylight, but, as the bio states, they were pursuing a more high fidelity recording. That’s quickly evident as “Dotted Line” reaches its final jam. Pinegrove in 2020 sounds a whole lot tighter as a unit than ever before.
But Marigold also follows Skylight’s tendencies to aim for a softer, more delicate, more intimate sound than anything on Cardinal. Gone are the cathartic, fist-pumping moments from “Cadmium,” the louder, capital-R Rock aesthetics from “Then Again” or the bruising solos à la “Aphasia.” Had upbeat alt-country stunner “Phase” been released on any prior record, it likely would have been a much louder, jammier song like Cardinal’s “Visiting.” Here, it’s looser and gentler, more reminiscent of a country song written in Nashville than from a band hailing from the New Jersey DIY basement scene.
Hall & co. respond with a more refined batch of songs on Marigold. It seems Hall realized yelps and screams don’t necessarily attract the most attention; he now recognizes that by being even more vulnerable than ever before, he’s capable of producing his finest songwriting yet. That’s particularly obvious on “The Alarmist,” as Hall nearly whispers the final line of the first verse: “I whisper to myself / Then I’m spinning it half around / Like an echo / A faraway sound / Saying, ‘be good to me.’” Though the first stanza makes it seem like this is a song about the breakdown of a relationship and Hall’s inability to communicate effectively, that raw “be good to me” refrain feels wholly personal, directed towards himself and no one else. For the public to forgive him for his past misdeeds (if it ever will), he needs to forgive himself first to find a way forward.
That idea is the main thesis of Marigold. “No Drugs’’ details an experimentation with sobriety, pleading to whoever will listen that “I wanna feel good.” Later, “Phase” gives us a glimpse into that struggle: “I’m torn right through / Divided right in two / I’m lost and I’m losing / The brightest light I knew.” Pinegrove always had a knack for writing intense lyrics that reflected our own self-doubts and issues—it’s one of the main reasons why they had/have such an adoring fan base—and on “Endless,” Hall attempts to relate to the listener on a deeper level as he sings, “Is life kicking up dust right now? / Has life given up for you right now as well? / Oh, what is life giving us?” It’s a moment that tugs at the heartstrings.
“Just as hip-hop fans may expect their favorite rappers to be as tough as they say they are, many [Pinegrove fans] wanted Hall to be as thoughtful and sensitive as the narrator of the songs they loved,” Sanneh wrote in The New Yorker. That sentiment strikes at the heart of Marigold, especially now after all that we know (and don’t know) over two years after Hall attempted to come clean. He’s taken all the right steps in the ensuing aftermath—taking time off from touring, cutting ties with their first label, going to therapy, performing sober, all at the behest of his accuser—and he does deserve at least some credit for doing so. He’s surely not the only frontman who has been in a situation along these lines, and he definitely won’t be the last.
Marigold is an excellent portrayal of someone trying to get better, own up to his mistakes and move on in a healthy way for all parties involved. It’s more restrained and defenseless than ever before musically and lyrically as Hall asks both himself and the listener for forgiveness. If you’re so inclined to hear him out, there’s a lot to like here. And if you aren’t, then that’s OK too.
Revisit Pinegrove’s 2017 Paste session: