This is ridiculously late, but I’ve like this album for a while and never got around to reviewing it so here you go. I’m probably going to write 5-8 more reviews this year then shoot out my year-end list.
Pinegrove nail the crawlspace between the unwitting optimism of youth and the terrifying realism of the first step into the freezing pool of adulthood. Each song on Cardinal touches upon heartbreak in one capacity or another, but the soaring, anthemic peaks look to the future without any sense of fear. Perhaps their songs are a bit formulaic, but Evan Stephens Hall’s knack for compelling lyricism earns the group the right to scream out each chorus one final time at the end of each song. Also, the astoundingly lush take on instrumentals takes emo to a surprisingly mature place without losing the intimacy key to the introspective lyricism that the idiom is so famous for.
“Cardinal” follows a loose narrative about Hall’s life. There’s this underlying theme that he needs to move on to a new chapter and he struggles with that for various reasons. “Old Friends” presents Hall in his childhood town regretting that he didn’t hold some of his friends closer. On “Cadmium” we learn about Hall’s struggles with connecting with people, which sees a bit of relief by virtue of a romantic relationship on “Aphasia.” The end of the track foreshadows some of the post-breakup issues that Hall is about to undergo by revealing his worries about whether or not the confidence he gets from being with this partner is going to continue when they’re apart.
“Visiting” seems to be the first post-breakup song as his troubles with talking to people—troubles that were eliminated by his significant other—have returned; he feels like he doesn’t know what to say when he’s catching up with people because he’s spent so long wallowing and hasn’t really gotten anywhere. “Waveform” and “Size of the Moon” could both be classified as break-up songs; “Waveform” feels like Hall’s last look back at the person in question hoping that she changes her mind and “Size of the Moon” features Hall directing questions at his old romantic partner such as “do you want to talk/dance/drink?” and reminiscing on their good and bad moments together. Both songs also feel like Hall knows this is the end, but a large part of him wants it all to come back. Finally, “New Friends” communicates with the central issue of “Old Friends” and “Visiting” with the idea that he cannot talk to his old friends because it’s been too long and he’s been caught up with his own problems, but he seems to finally come to terms with the fact that it’s time to move on.
Hall’s lyricism benefits from his vivid imagery. Rather than simply stating “I wrote a song about you” on “Waveform,” Hall states “I drew a waveform with your blood” making for a much more intense statement. When describing how bad he’s been feeling as of late he spouts “I’m spectral for days on end.” Besides these poetic moments, Hall does have some slightly hamfisted lyrics that serve more as relatable to the crowd than artistically strung together: “After the drugs have worn off/Will you still be there for me?” on “Visiting” and “I should call my parents when I think of them/Should tell my friends when I love them” on “Old Friends.” Still, these lines remain important to the narrative so their bluntness isn’t entirely uninvited.
Obviously the lyrics on this album take up most of the focus as the instrumentals are a bit cookie cutter in terms of form. Yet, there’s something quite warm and wholesome about them. Hall works very well with tempos and crescendos, first carefully whispering in the beginning of each track at a sluggish pace, then building up with each member chiming in by the end as the pace picks up. There’s a collective feel to it all that matches the importance of friendship suggested by the lyrics: “We’re good at things and so are a lot of our friends.”
At only eight tracks, “Cardinal” is an impressive start to a career. The band has a real knack for instrumental warmth and lyrical depth. Occasionally, the lyrics are a bit blunt, but they fit quite well into the narrative and Hall’s more poetic moments inspire more pondering. It is somewhat important to consider the question, “where do they go from here.” In a genre so contingent on the struggles of youth, many emo bands have dropped out of the scene after only an album or two. Hopefully, Pinegrove does find some way to mature in the future without losing their emotional weight.