Hand Habits Lets the Light in on 'Sugar the Bruise'

BY Marko DjurdjićPublished Jun 14, 2023

As Hand Habits, Meg Duffy has released three striking albums — 2017's Wildly Idle (Humble Before the Void), 2019's Placeholder and 2021's Fun House — filled with meticulous songwriting and superb guitar work. Inspired by a month-long stint in 2021 as a songwriting instructor at School of Song (a series of online, live and participatory songwriting workshops), Duffy confronted their own approach to making music and realized that improvisation and collaboration had always been essential to their writing process. This approach is on full display on Sugar the Bruise, their fourth album under the Hand Habits moniker.

Working closely with co-producer and previous collaborator Luke Temple (with additional production and engineering from Philip Weinrobe and Jeremy Harris), Duffy relinquished control and precision — and perhaps loneliness — in favour of something more immediate, striking, and impulsive. The resulting six-song record has a looseness to it that celebrates the uninhibited power of spontaneity and invention.

The album's lead single, "Something Wrong," starts with a plodding, industrial drum beat and Duffy's soft, impassioned vocals, which are always a highlight. It feels purposely distant, but once the chorus hits — with its thin, clean picked guitars, fuzzy chords and a soaring melody — you're hooked. The song is a testament to great production; simple, effective, and affecting. A love song about the need for platonic friendship, it's both devastating and affirming — sometimes all we need is a buddy, and that can feel like the hardest thing in the world to find.

With its horns, glitchy electronics and crumbling drums, "Gift of the Human Curse" brings to mind the Magnetic Fields' 69 Love Songs. Duffy's processed vocals have a ghostly detachment to them, but when they croon "I want to feel connected / But I can't trust a single soul," the melancholy becomes all too real. Similarly, the jazzy instrumental lilt of "The Book on How to Change" echoes Duffy's consuming need for connection (re: collaboration) through its mournful use of woodwinds.

The Elliott Smith-esque "Andy in Stereo" is a crisp and collegiate Autumn afternoon, with twinkling keyboards and Duffy's exceptional guitar playing, which finally gets its due, particularly in the verses. The two-minute-long climax sees Duffy cryptically repeating "Before, before, before, before…" over a bubbling, cacophonous mix of guitars, drums, blips and slides, conjuring something harrowing, unsettling, and illusive. This abrupt mixing of styles and genres is also very present on powerful album closer "The Bust of Nefertiti." 

The song places us in a lonely German museum where the distraught speaker ponders power, patriarchy, gender and colonialism, all while gazing at the beauty of the carved limestone visage. Chugging, palm-muted chords are complemented by shimmering, distant guitars, but as soon as you start thinking that the dirge will continue forevermore, that you've figured it all out, it slowly starts to build until…Surprise! Midway through, the track suddenly explodes, ditching the sombre folk and morphing into a soaring, house-inspired four-on-the-floor banger. It's an unexpected turn that celebrates the looseness of the project itself, one that is unconcerned with expectations, rules or structures. 

What the song and album celebrate is hope — hope in collaboration, connection, queerness, difference and exploration. When we are intimate, we are exposed; when we are with someone, we are vulnerable, and that conscious vulnerability is what produces great art. There is much loneliness, pain, and darkness in Sugar the Bruise, but after we've staggered through the darkness, the lights look that much brighter, that much more brilliant and inviting, as they spin and glimmer off the proverbial disco ball of life. While those of us who have an affinity for Meg Duffy's work hold onto it dearly and tightly, it's time to let go. Sugar the Bruise is where the light begins.
(Fat Possum)

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