One of the hardest things to do in the face of heartache or grief is to act generously. Though Common Holly’s debut LP, Playing House, came together after the end of a long relationship—according to Brigitte Naggar, the Montreal songwriter behind the band—the album is filled with indie-folk tunes that show as much sweetness as they do sadness and reflection. Somewhat surprisingly, its dominant themes are warmth and generosity.
Instead of relying on the inward-facing meditation that dominates many breakup albums, Common Holly often reaches out beyond the herself, offering support for another. In “Nothing,” over soft electric guitar, light keys, and pretty harmonies, Naggar sings, “I'd say I hope that for your sake / The world is done punishing you.” The next song, “Devil’s Doubt,” shares a similar sentiment, urging amid a wash of cello, “Stop all that sitting by the window / Don't you forget about the daylight.” In the baroque melody in “Lullaby,” she again coaxes the person she addresses out, singing, “Come out, come out wherever you are / My friend it’s safe.” Rock and folk have produced a lot of breakup albums, but not many exhibit such empathy for the person left behind (if we can presume that’s who she addresses).
Not all of Playing House is sweet, though. Throughout the album, Common Holly includes a fair share of harder-edged and offbeat moments for balance. Violins screech quietly in “The Desert” behind a satisfying dream-pop build; “In My Heart” has accents of grinding, soaring electric guitar; “If After All” features a big, aggressive swell of rock instruments with vocals to match; and the rhythm in “Lullaby” is at times delightfully elusive. Mostly gentle and pretty, Naggar’s vocals also transform to reflect some of the edge that occasionally emerges in the lyrics. When the artist does turn her reflections on herself, they are metaphors of dangerous things: “I’m the wild coyote,” she sings in “The Desert,” and “I know I was the rose / But now I feel like I’m the thorn” in “The Rose.”
For the most part, though, the vocals are soft and dreamy, more mournful and tender than biting. And in an album with surprising touches of pop, the vocals are also at times invitingly bright. In the final song, “New Bed,” for example, over light acoustic guitar and rain sound effects, Naggar sings breathily but cheerfully, “There it is still raining / Here it’s dry”—a line that suggests despite everything, it will be okay. “A steady beating in my heart, it keeps me ready,” she sings; she can face the dark on her own, with the strength of self-assurance. Perhaps more than a breakup album, Playing House is a coming-of-age album. While the title and children pictured on the cover suggest that tough times can make you feel like a kid pretending to be an adult, Common Holly’s music is graceful, subtle, and fully grown up.