Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify and Apple Music playlists at the bottom of the page.
Meg Duffy's music seems to exist in miniature, but it's not for brevity or lack of complexity. Just the opposite, in fact: Recording as Hand Habits, Duffy pays scrupulous attention to detail in songs that function like intricate dioramas.
On placeholder, the singer (who identifies as non-binary and uses they/them pronouns) contemplates the fragility of human relationships and the hard-to-stomach reality that many of the people, experiences and places we've loved are only stepping stones on a journey of self-discovery.
"A big aspect of my songwriting and the way I move through the world depends on my relationships with people," Duffy writes in a statement about the album. "The songs on placeholder are about accountability and forgiveness. I don't fictionalize much."
After a string of bedroom demos made their way to Bandcamp in the early 2010s, Duffy became a fixture on a burgeoning Hudson Valley DIY scene alongside acts like Florist and Bellows. (Duffy was raised in Albany and attended college in Schenectady.) With momentum building, they chose to place Hand Habits on hold, leaving the Northeast for Los Angeles to play guitar with songwriter Kevin Morby's live band. After several years of touring, Duffy signed to indie label Woodsist and, in 2017, released Wildly Idle (Humble Before the Void), a tender, captivating solo debut.
A gorgeous progression from Wildly Idle, placeholder captures Duffy's transfixing intimacy in elevated form. While their earlier work was entirely self-produced, placeholder was recorded at Justin Vernon's Wisconsin studio. Duffy's vocals find new confidence amid gentle guitar strumming and warbling pedal steel, blending into a haze of dreamlike Americana. These songs evoke waves of warm, pop-driven nostalgia, with equal doses of melancholy and optimism.
The album's title track captures the musings of someone scorned but not dejected. Duffy displays an adept ability to see their own duplicity, never resolving to pin blame on someone else: "Oh, but I was just a placeholder / A lesson to be learned / Oh, but now you're just a placeholder / For someone wasting time."
In "yr heart [reprise]," Duffy sings of a phone call to a distant lover with an almost Patsy Cline-like lilt: "And you are far but not that far / I can feel you push your fingers / Through the fabric of all my thoughts."
The record's furthest sonic wandering point arrives in a minute-long brass interlude in "the book on how to change part II." Duffy leaves us with a proverb that doubles as a euphoric moment of clarity: "The book on how to change / Wasn't written in one day / The book on how to change / Never taught me anything."