Sydney Walter | Contributor
The band Palehound possesses the moodiness of the Smiths and the lyrical intimacy of Adult Mom all while reaffirming the healing and constructive qualities of music. Their sophomore album, A Place I’ll Always Go, was released this summer with 10 equally impressive songs that make it impossible to stop listening until the very end. The album retains the grit and vulnerability Palehound fans have come to expect, but it feels much more polished and unified. It explores the conflicting emotions of 23-year-old singer, songwriter, and guitarist Ellen Kempner at two polar pivotal moments in her life that passed less than a year apart. She was struck with grief first over the loss of her grandmother and then the sudden death of a close friend. While previous albums were patchwork collections of unrelated songs from different points in Kepner’s life, A Place I’ll Always Go tells a succinct narrative. The title of the album is derived from the sudden and unexpected moments of reflection she finds herself in and how they can can be nostalgic, grief-stricken and exciting all at the same time. Her pieces mix the upbeat with the somber in a thoughtful order that steers clear of any emotional clichés.
A conscious change made by Kempner in this new album was her use of pronouns. These new love songs have a mix of they/them and she/her pronouns which officially marked her coming out as a queer artist. She described in interviews how previous love songs with he/him pronouns were written out of her enjoyment of the genre but were ultimately subjectless. Now, Kempner is motivated by the experiences of her first serious gay relationship. She was surprised by how the grandiose idea of love that she had envisioned in her head was actually made of small, tender, and casual moments.
The track “Feeling Fruit” conveys her feelings of emptiness and longing that haunt her as she tries to return to her daily routine, including grocery shopping and meeting up with friends. The hushed, breathy lyrics on top of repeating chromatic guitar lines are wistful but never overly dreary. “Flowing Over” explores the frustration of dealing with a barrage of emotions which are only amplified by her constant anxiety that manifests as physical pain. The lyrics “flowing over ‘till I empty out” describe her hectic way of processing and expressing her feelings. Bubbling amidst her suffering, however, is excitement about her first healthy, queer, adult relationship, and the album’s leading song, “Hunter’s Gun,” relays the hesitancy of newfound attraction with simple droning guitar and mechanic drum patterns. “Room” documents the small, seemingly insignificant moments in a relationship that Kempner had never really been able to appreciate before. This clash of love and loss is a common theme in Palehound’s discography but has never before been examined to this extent.
As a long-time listener of Palehound, I was ecstatic about this subtle-yet-impactful representation of queer relationships but wondered what specifically triggered this honesty. In an interview with Out Magazine, Kepner revealed that she had known she was gay for most of highschool, but struggled with integrating it into her public identity. Her songs had always been restricted by the immense pressure to protect her carefully constructed persona.
Specifically refreshing in her most recent work is that there is no abrasive destruction of previous stage identity but rather a gentle portrayal of finding strength and pride in who she is. What made the difference in her confidence was finding a community of like-minded people in Boston and learning how to embrace her identity “outside of the bedroom.” A Place I’ll always Go beautifully illustrates the queer experience by mixing resistance with acceptance, simple moments with complex emotions, and fear with excitement. Coupling inner clarity with newfound love, Kepner weaves a hopeful subplot within her narrative of grief that leaves listeners with a warmth that lingers beyond the last refrain.