It’s no surprise that Flood and Alan Moulder found themselves sharing a studio with The Pains of Being Pure at Heart during the Belong sessions; the young New York band seems to have listened to as much My Bloody Valentine, Smashing Pumpkins, and Depeche Mode as those very producers themselves. The experience brought by Flood and Moulder shines through on the record in the form of tidy production and a more refined sound for The Pains of Being Pure at Heart. Still, it never really takes hold — it never truly feels like the band’s own sound. Perhaps due to an intentional detachment gone awry, Belong sounds more like an homage than a passing of the torch, more imitation than inspiration.
Which isn’t to say The Pains of Being Pure at Heart make bad music – they don’t. If it’s an homage, it’s a very good one; Belong does the best job of recapturing the ethos of early nineties alt rock of anyone these days, with a nod in the direction of Yuck. Where Yuck seems wholly invested in simultaneously sounding like nineties slackers and pushing the genre study in new directions, though, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart seem a bit like artists mimicking a style before fully mastering it and reflecting it outward. Their music is neither fully engaged nor fully engaging. Lead singer Kip Berman’s whispery affectation sounds more complacent than cool, and the entire album sounds dispassionate.
Occasionally, like on “Girls of 1000 Dreams,” the band finds some drive, kicking it up a notch and pushing forward. For most of the album, however, they seem content to lounge around and make songs that do the same. On “The Body,” a track that plays at sexual confusion and isolation, Berman sings “Tell me again what the body is for,” with an ambiguous mix of purity and disillusion. Perhaps more poignant is the echoing refrain: “I can’t feel it anymore.” It’s a fitting line for The Pains at Being Pure at Heart; they don’t make me feel anything. I don’t dislike the band, I just don’t hear anything worth getting particularly excited about.
The album kicks off with its strongest three tracks in ascending order, a wise decision for a sophomore release with a lot left to prove; “Belong” shows off the band’s shiny new sound while simultaneously giving listeners the opportunity to adjust volume knobs for optimal peaks and valleys. If there’s one thing Pains is better at than most of their peers, it’s utilizing the full wave of sound, hitting loud louds and soft softs with a confidence that is appealing. Unfortunately, there’s not much there to back up that confidence. Berman’s lyrics are dull and predictable, a conscious decision, according to an interview he did with Pitchfork. “Lyrically, the first record had a lot of remembered experiences that I was looking back on and trying to make more clever, which can sound contrived,” Berman told Pitchfork. Here they don’t sound contrived, they sound banal. The instruments are good but not great, the songwriting weak, the passion all but absent.
The album’s best track, “Heart In Your Heartbreak” encapsulates both the strengths and weaknesses of The Pains of Being Pure at Heart. The song rides a catchy melody through a chorus that gets stuck in your head, but it’s full of the sort of lyrics a lovelorn high schooler would write; “She was the heart in your heartbreak/She was the miss in your mistake.” The songs are catchy, and the band has a knack for crafting tunes that fluidly move from one section to the next without missing a beat. But in the end I’m left feeling like there’s not much behind the curtain.
Belong’s more polished sound is dominated by the high end, cymbals and guitars and synths fading together into a sort of treble fuzz. Peggy Wang’s synths are less of an afterthought, and Berman’s voice is a little more prominent, but the new mix doesn’t bring out any particularly enlightening aspects of their music. If anything, the move away from the lo-fi sound of their debut makes The Pains of Being Pure at Heart sound more like a clone of the 90s they’ve genre dug than a new take on a familiar vibe. If Belong were a friend of mine, I’d call it nice, but boring.
There are bands that engender love from fans without ever gaining the support of critics. Conversely, there are critical darlings that never strike a true chord with an audience, playing to a small group of devoted fans for the entirety of their career. Against all odds, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart have managed to capture both crowds. To put it bluntly, I don’t understand why.
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