You don’t hear the word “apoptosis” very often, but it pops up twice on Safely Nobody’s by Philadelphia (via D.C.) band Tall Friend. In biology, apoptosis means “programmed cell death”—i.e., organisms sacrifice pieces of themselves in the name of overall growth. For songwriter Charlie Pfaff (who takes the pronouns they and them), it’s a handy metaphor for all the small losses we suffer just for wanting to be loved. (Pfaff is into science, it seems; the lyrics to the band’s only other release, the Tawl Friend EP, are full of references to bugs and guts.)
“I keep thinking you’ll apologize if I give it some time / If I give it some time,” Pfaff sings on “Skate Ramp.” The song is soft, raw, naked, and every note of muted electric guitar is punctuated by the sounds of fingers sliding across the strings to find their next position. Every word is murmured and echoing. “Sometimes pain brings us back to where we gotta be,” Pfaff concludes. As is often the case on Safely Nobody’s, the specifics are left to the imagination. All we really hear about is the aftermath, the wounds that won’t close.
Pfaff’s intimate lyrics are frequently numbed by their semi-detached vocal delivery, sounding not so much weary as steadfast. They never scream, never linger, even when the pace quickens. On the handful of genuine rock songs on Safely Nobody’s, Pfaff’s words convey deadpan frustration and disappointment while the drums give you something to nod to. “Radio” and “Natural Things” are catchy and lovely, the former boasting a cockeyed guitar line and brittle percussion, the latter rolling along on a loping bassline. “Oats,” the record’s longest song at two minutes and 14 seconds, even shreds a little bit at the end; the song’s gently-whirling guitar line slowly growing fangs. And another rocker, “Small Space,” offers the album’s most resolute approach to hurt, again expressing it in earthly terms: “Photosynthesis / Take a harsh light and turn it into energy.”