With 11:11 Pinegrove builds upon their distinct blend of indie, emo, and country-rock by trading out some of their usual suburban bustle in favor of something knottier; both contemplative and expansive. With some of his most striking and memorable writing since the group’s breakout 2016 album, Cardinal frontman Evan Stephens Hall sifts through climate anxiety and unsettling post-pandemic apathy in search of hope and heart underneath.
At times, the warm tones and more subdued energy that mark this record can call to mind 2018’s Skylight, but where the latter feels like a fenced-in backyard, 11:11 is a walk through fields and forests. The band’s arrangements (partially contributed by former Death Cab for Cutie member Chris Walla, who also mixed the album) ebb and flow across the songs, allowing Hall’s writing to guide them as they adeptly expand and contract as if looking up at the sky and then back down at a single blade of grass, and there’s a newfound looseness to their playing here that makes the record feel particularly alive, even in its slower moments.
On the 7-minute album-opener “Habitat” the band kick in with uncharacteristic heft, fuzzy guitars, and cymbal crashes accent Hall’s yearning and despondent lyrics about driving around Upstate New York until one of their finest riffs to date carries the song into its back half, where Hall mulls over our “Civilwarland in bad decline” atop the sound of chirping birds, gentle intertwining acoustic and electric guitars and bubbling electronics as if suggesting that the way forward is in harmony with nature, or perhaps more pessimistically that nature will grow over our “gone and dilapidated” world. Hall evokes the natural world again and again throughout the tracklist, using it as a lens with which to view both himself and humanity at large; a pelican, animals lounging in the sun, and wavering treelines all become reflection points. The fixation is laid out best on the jangly country stomp of “Flora”, reminiscent of The Decemberists circa-The King Is Dead, which finds him seeking comfort in the birds and trees, but his inability to separate their beauty from the destruction of the climate crisis only spins him out further.
“Respirate”, the album’s emotional centerpiece, gives voice to the feelings of emotional whiplash Americans have felt over the course of the pandemic. “I take it day by day/And just do my best to respirate/We’re having a hard time now/Finding a good way out” Hall sings on the chorus, his voice desperate for hope. The song builds from a wistful country ballad into a triumphant finish with Hall declaring “No one’s gonna rescue us/No one will care if we spend our lives up/But I care now/Not gonna let you down,” drawing out the words “care” and “you” as a shimmering Hammond organ (played by Hall’s father Doug) overtake the band and fills up the space around him. It’s a goosebumps-inducing moment and might be one of the very best Pinegrove has laid to tape.
After an impeccable first half, with highlights including the driving indie rock of “Alaska” and the climate change PSA “Orange”, 11:11 starts to waver a bit. “Let” and “So What” aren’t bad songs, but they fail to capture the listener’s attention either sonically or lyrically in the same way as the earlier songs. Thankfully the band closes things out on stronger footing with “Cyclone,” a classic-sounding Pinegrove song sure to become a live staple, and “11th Hour”, where Hall sings with resignation about growing older and standing at the precipice of potential doom (“When coal is cut across the sky/In saturated dye/In actual emergency now/It’s really going down”).
11:11 is an album that’s sure to please longtime fans of the band, but it also serves as a prime document of the cultural atmosphere in the United States in 2022. Evan Stephens Hall and company have delivered a record that understands and even embodies the despair and hopelessness many young people feel right now while never fully surrendering to it, and always looking for the light, love, and community that keeps us alive.
photo by Balarama Heller