For Hand Habits’ Meg Duffy, creativity is a ritual of connection that reconciles the innumerable unknowns within and beyond human existence. Over the years, they’ve come to understand that it’s the questions, not necessarily the answers, that provide color to life. “The container of a song can be a safe place to pose questions or take risks,” they said in an interview about their 2021 album, Fun House. “The ritual of performing the songs helps me become more comfortable with not knowing the answers.” For their latest EP, Sugar the Bruise, Duffy builds worlds around a multitude of unanswerable queries.

Duffy recorded earlier albums like 2019’s Placeholder entirely on their own, feeling like they had “something to prove.” Now, moving with more curiosity and openness, they’ve brought on more collaborators, co-producing with Luke Temple, Jeremy Harris, and Philip Weinrobe. Here, Duffy is at their most instrumentally complex and collaboratively generous. The result of this free-for-all cooperation is Hand Habits’ most engrossing project yet.

Duffy examines creativity’s mysterious layers, using art to talk about art itself. They confront the hardships of a touring musician and their struggle with artistic integrity on “Andy in Stereo,” then marvel at a historic artwork on “The Bust of Nefertiti.” In the former, Duffy is an omnipresent narrator, a patron saint of workaholic performers who advises the song’s protagonist, Andy, as the track morphs from a melancholic ballad into a tinkling waltz. Later, glistening chimes rain down like a sunshower. “If the music’s in your hands,” Duffy urges during the epiphanic moment, “You could play it on your own again/Just like before you could afford the band/You were lighter then.” The song’s structure transforms alongside Andy’s shifting career, emphasizing that life and creativity are not meant to be stagnant or linear. Both are as malleable and fluid as the song’s mutations.

Although the majority of these songs explore the complexities of art and imagination, the two strongest tracks on Sugar the Bruise focus on human connection. On opener “Something Wrong,” Duffy aches for a new friendship to take hold, or for a previous relationship to move into platonic territory. “Is there something wrong with that?” they ask stubbornly during the chorus, as pounding drums stomp their feet in frustration. It’s the simplest song on Sugar the Bruise, both in structure and sentiment: the pure, guileless desire to connect with another. But Duffy transforms a simple chord progression into a pilgrimage towards intimacy, adding thick, neon synths, a corroded guitar solo, and high-pitched, wormy background vocals. It’s a new, unflinching tone for Duffy, who’s well-known for slow and perceptive songwriting, and it draws us in even closer to Hand Habits’ already intimate reflections.

Still, the most heart-wrenching moment on Sugar the Bruise is a return to form. Duffy slowly shrinks away from their lover on the vulnerable ballad “Private Life.” “Morning, talking to your mother/Only moments after making me cum,” they divulge, alongside delicate piano keys and subtle white noise. “I heard you tell her there was no one else here/How much shame you place between me and our love.” Their vocals evoke mixed emotions—yearning and acceptance. Being alive means both pain and love; being human means embracing the dissonance. “This is your private life/I don’t belong here,” goes the chorus. Throughout, Duffy’s tone rides a fine line of detachment and somber assent, but in the song’s final line, a tender bruise begins to develop: “This is your private life/I wish I belonged there.”

These tracks showcase Duffy living in the marvelous, painful unknown in the most evocative ways. On closer “The Bust of Nefertiti,” a bobbing bass and honeyed acoustic guitar strum excitedly alongside a stomping house beat. After Duffy softly sings about witnessing the legendary work, the song transports us out of the Berlin Museum where the bust is held and onto a technicolor dance floor for a transcendent two-minute outro. Years ago, Duffy said, “Music is a catalyst for the divine, and a vehicle in which to disappear.” On this song, Duffy glimpses something otherworldly. It may seem like the musician we’re familiar with has disappeared. Instead, they’ve just transformed into something more sublime.

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Hand Habits: Sugar the Bruise EP