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Jeff Tweedy

May 07, 2018

Half Waif



Some songs are spells. The ones Nandi Rose Plunkett casts as Half Waif conjure meaning out of everyday human experience. Through her lens, a walk through the garden, a lover’s spat, or a moment alone becomes a catalyst for self-reckoning and sometimes, revelation. On Lavender, Half Waif’s third full-length album and most cohesive collection to date, Plunkett attempts to put words to indescribable feelings of love and loss. When words don’t cut it, her intricate electronic arrangements give heft to the intangible. The internal conflicts Half Waif makes public are raw, relatable, and often insoluble; these songs provide comfort without resolution.

Transience has always defined the Half Waif project; the name itself came to Plunkett when she finished college and moved to New York around the same time that her mother decided to sell her childhood home. She felt untethered and uncertain, a waif with a small landing pad in the form of family and friends. Over the past few years, Plunkett has found herself on the road more often than not; first as a member of Pinegrove and then, when her last EP form/a was released, Plunkett started committing to the Half Waif project full-time. She moved out of her home in Brooklyn and became another musician on the road, one who isn’t beholden to any particular place. But Lavender suggests that home — or at least the idea of it — is always in Plunkett’s line of vision.

“Back In Brooklyn” is a song about exactly that. It’s the most sparse on the album, a piano ballad that Plunkett wrote after visiting Brooklyn on the tail-end of a tour. “I called you up when I got back/ Where have you been?/ Don’t ask me that,” she recalls reuniting with old friends and having little vocabulary to explain away her absence. “Back In Brooklyn” is the most devastating song on Lavender, because it is the only one on which Plunkett sounds entirely alone. Lyrically, Plunkett is an optimist — her sad admissions are typically buoyed by some hint of hope. On “Torches,” she sings about reuniting with old friends who ask the same questions: “You used to say, ‘when are you coming back?’/ Then came the day when you no longer asked/ I fly through your life like an acrobat.” When she sings that word, “acrobat,” she’s joined by cooing harmonies, the brutal drumbeat deflected so you can revel in that metaphor just for a moment.

You can hear Kate Bush in some of Plunkett’s more dramatic production choices, but if you were to associate Half Waif with any contemporary artist, women like Lydia Ainsworth, ANOHNI, or Florence Welch might be a better frame of reference. Artists who push their sonics up and out of the atmosphere, who can turn small moments of emotional upset into towering, epic declarations. There’s no real genre title that links any of them, but something like “mystical pop” feels about right. Especially on songs like “Solid 2 Void,” when Plunkett compares a collapsing relationship to an apocalypse. Or on lead single “Keep It Out,” when Plunkett vocalizes the building tension with a partner and the sparse, unfussy beat she sings over falls away for a moment when she reaches a climactic tipping point: “We seek to settle, we make a home/ It’s fun for a little until it’s old/ And so it withers, like all the rest/ ‘Til we’re sleeping like strangers/ On opposite sides of the bed.”

The struggle to build a home with anyone you love is an omnipresent theme on Lavender, and the most instantly-memorable songs on the album deal in the complications of romantic relationships. “In The Evening” focuses on the small comforts of domesticity and the way caring for someone you share space with is instinctual, even when it isn’t reciprocated. “In the morning there’ll be tea and coffee/ And milk just the way you like,” Plunkett sings, her voice dipping in and out of focus. The electric stunner “Lilac House” approaches the same topic from a different angle, with Plunkett leaning into an epic fantasy where she is able to fully act on impulses that otherwise might be suppressed. “I’ve been looking on the bright side for my whole life/ Now I’m looking for trouble,” this unhinged version of Plunkett sings feverishly over a beat that strikes down like lightning during a flash flood.

There are a lot of staggering moments like that one on Lavender, songs that impress quickly simply because they are so forceful in their delivery. But one of the very best, and perhaps most unconventional on the album, appears on the backend. It’s called “Leveler,” and there are moments on it when Plunkett’s cadences recall an early-career Joni Mitchell. “I’ll take the last train/ I’ll make it in time/ I’ll be holding your hand/ While you’re leaving your mind,” Plunkett’s voice slides upward effortlessly as she sings about saying a final goodbye to her grandmother, who died last year. It showcases Plunkett’s lyricism at its finest, the way she can isolate one small moment in time and make it speak to a larger theme. Death is the ultimate leveler in that every time we’re forced to confront it, we’re flattened by the impossibility of truly understanding what it is to lose someone. And, relatedly, to lose a part of yourself in the process of saying goodbye.

The healing powers of lavender are numerous. Harvested before it blooms, it is best known for its unmistakable aroma and faint purpley-blue color. An herbalist told me that lavender can serve as a mild antidepressant, that it supports the nervous and digestive systems and its name comes from the word “lavar,” or “to wash.” When Plunkett first references the plant on lead track “Lavender Burning,” she describes it stewing over a stove in her now-deceased grandmother’s house, “filling the space with a strange kind of loving.” In that moment, an otherwise downtrodden song about missing New York muscles up under a staggering drumbeat that builds momentum and lends at least a little confidence to Plunkett’s admission that she’s a lost woman. In allowing herself to explore that sense of loss, Plunkett constructed an album that captures a brief period of her evolution, both as an artist and a human being. Lavender, the plant, serves to soothe and bring comfort when you’re in bad shape. Lavender, the album, does too.

-via Stereogum