‘Let’s Pretend’ album review
album: Let’s Pretend
artist: Pen Pals
genre: folk pop
release date: March 20, 2020
star rating: five out of five
review by Levi Yager
After disappearing in the fall of 2017, Pen Pals have come back now to play pretend. Through their meticulously-crafted harmonies and earnest delivery, they lead the listener to ponder reality, pine for restoration and appreciate the present moment. Let’s Pretend has everything that initially enamored me with Pen Pals – and then some.
First, Heath and Jetty set the scene with “Voice Inside My Head,” which is kind of different for the duo. It’s got a shady, noir feel to it that’s emphasized by stumblin’ keys falling over confessional vocals. The smoky bar vibes here create a cool atmosphere that settles easily into the listener’s mind.
Then, the smoke clears for the title track, a refreshing return to Pen Pals’ established folk sound. And, in my opinion, this is where they really shine. “Let’s Pretend” is a beautifully intricate song about the dance between hope and doubt, and it ends in a watershed moment where the emotional reservoir spills over with the help of resolute acoustic guitar strums and careful piano playing. If this is the side of Pen Pals you’re into, I’d recommend cuts “Live Before You Die” and “Tethered” as well.
Exploring a darker side of their sound, Pen Pals visits a dwelling full of emptiness in the third song, “Abandoned House.” The somber melody acts as our guide, taking us through barren corridors and revealing still rooms with drooping cobwebs spun by lingering regrets. Everything is washed in a gloomy half-light as Heath and Jetty sing of personal disquiet, and slow strings drift in and out of the open windows, ever-so-slightly disturbing the settling dust. “Abandoned House” is a hauntingly-elegant song to lose yourself in.
On the opposite end of the ambit, the sixth track is where Pen Pals perfect their pop-leaning sensibilities. “No Innocents” validates its kinetic, jittery electronic components with a super-catchy melody, especially in the chorus. It’s a fun ride that rounds out the various approaches on Let’s Pretend.
The seventh and final track on the EP is “Rock of Ages.” It’s a wonderful swan song featuring frugal use of keys and also lyrics that touch on spiritual longing and questioning. The duo sings, “Rock of Ages, does Your Spirit walk along my street? Can you cure what’s wrong with me?” It more than suffices as the bookmark in this chapter of Pen Pals’ story. And as a sidenote, there’s even a little Kris Kristofferson/Johnny Cash reference in there, which is neat.
Let’s Pretend is one of my favorite surprises this year. I love Pen Pals, and I think they reach their full potential with this release. Their artful, yet unpretentious, folksy tunes capture life’s fleeting experiences in a way that exudes expectancy while simultaneously wielding melancholy, thus portraying an understanding of maturity. Honestly, I like to think of their albums as pieces of the same narrative; that the two kids from Gold grew up and went on to live their own, separate lives through I Disappear and Let’s Pretend, but their individual stories remain intertwined and reflected in each other – even in the smallest of ways. Whether or not you’re invested in Pen Pals’ previous works, I strongly encourage you to give this album a listen. It’s altogether exciting, calming and engaging, and I couldn’t really ask for more.