Tall Friend’s new album Safely Nobody’s begins with a song called “Mother,” which is a recorded voicemail played over a subdued bass line. The voice addresses Charlie (Pfaff), the driving force behind the trio, through tears: “It’s Mom. Everything will be ok. I love you so much.”
It’s a striking half-minute recording, as much for the display of unpolished, maternal emotion as for the fact that the band opted to include it in their album. Tall Friend, also comprised of Cale Cuellar and Jesse Paller, describes Safely Nobody’s as “a documentation of me packing up and unboxing many, many years of hurt.” Right at the start of the album, “Mother” makes a promise that it will spare nothing in that documentation.
What follows in the next eight songs, though, unfolds with lightness and beauty. In contrast to the direct and affecting voicemail that haunts the ensuing music, the rest of Tall Friend’s hurts emerge in fragments. The mother returns throughout the album alongside other family members and people not mentioned by name, hinting at what hurts may have inspired it. The mom calls from a hospital to say “happy birthday” in “Oats,” the narrator finds a video of themselves dancing with their father when they were four in “Apoptosis,” and they face the threat of goodbye on “Radio.” Narrated over loose and lo-fi combinations—sometimes delicate, sometimes punchy—of bright guitar, simple bass, and tight, soft drums in songs that last no longer than around two minutes, the stories on Safely Nobody’s are raw but skeletal, and not without sweetness.
Both rawness and sweetness emerge in extremes on Pfaff’s vocals. They primarily sing with a breathy tone that borders on twee, but they darken the edges from time to time. In “72,” the low, psychedelic repetition in the verse offers deeper, huskier tones; the close, foregrounded vocals on “Radio” sound sharp against the dissonant, jittery composition; and on “Apoptosis," Pfaff’s chant-like singing is simultaneously intimate and echoing, like a sorcerer reciting spells in a small cave. Pain—family strife, romantic heartbreak—has the ability to render you childlike in one moment and wise beyond your years in the next. Throughout the album, Tall Friend captures this phenomenon through both the vocals and lyrics (“I have been grown since I was small," they say to their mother on “Oats,” “I'm still little, but what does that mean?” they sing on “Skate Ramp,” and “At playtime, I’m always the doggy” in “KB”).
There’s nothing childlike about Tall Friend’s songwriting, though. Practicing a skill even harder than divulging raw, unfiltered emotion in lyrics, Pfaff manages to capture feeling through poetic insinuation. Safely Nobody’s is filled with diversions and stand-ins. “Natural Things” focuses on the lighting of a match but ends with a self-effacing observation: “You like me / When I'm not so loud.” In “KB”—one of the standouts on the album—their dad “watches storms like he's looking in the mirror / Like if he squints hard enough he'll become the lightning.” The song ebbs and flows through fathers, lightning, myths, playtime, nectarines, and fake praying, but it ends with a punch in the gut: “I love you, could I make it any clearer?”
In that kind of moment, found throughout Safely Nobody’s, Tall Friend accomplishes exactly what they intend; “I ... know that there are people out there still feeling desolate and unsure of what tomorrow will bring. I hope that these songs will provide a little bit of solace,” Pfaff writes in the album’s notes. Like the best soul-bearing music or a message from a loved one, solace is exactly what Tall Friend brings.
Check out Tall Friend playing "KB" live in the Blue Room here.