Whenever I get overwhelmingly depressed about this life of mine, I can always count on Joe Pernice to remind me that everything is as soul-crushingly bleak as I suspect. Pernice is a comforting songwriter not because he’s falsely reassuring or optimistic, but because he extends existential solidarity to those who see the world in all its naked, ugly hostility.
After all, Pernice named one of the Pernice Brothers’ records The World Won’t End and opened his Chappaquiddick Skyline LP with the line “I hate my life” (now a T-shirt!). No fleeting twists of the pen or multi-interpretable slips of the tongue here: Pernice is no nonsense and all honesty, and that’s a beautiful thing.
Detractors slothfully label Pernice’s work as mope pop, but that’s missing the point. Few function as comfortably in their own sadness as he does, and that’s a lot different than saying he wallows in it. Like Eels’ Mark Everett, Pernice’s sweetly colored somber odes live by an early They Might Be Giants mantra: “Everybody dies frustrated and sad and that is beautiful”. After his Northampton, Massachusetts alt-country outfit Scud Mountain Boys called it quits in 1997, Pernice formed the pop-oriented Pernice Brothers (his brother Bob is the group’s only other biological brother) and released the strong Overcome by Happiness in 1998. The superior, depressively blissed out The World Won’t End followed in 2001 and set the formidable touchstone by which all subsequent Pernice Brothers records would be judged. It’s a high bar that 2003’s Yours, Mine & Ours failed to reach.
The band’s fourth studio album, Discover a Lovelier You (which, given Pernice’s method, I originally misread as Discover a Lonelier You), finally fulfills the stylistic transition begun with Yours, Mine & Ours: it’s a record deeply indebted to Pernice’s personal influences, namely the Smiths and New Order (see “My So-Called Celibate Life” for a dead ringer of the latter). Flanked by icy synthesizers and rat-a-tat 2x4-ish bass and drum tracks, Discover a Lovelier You often sounds like it comes from a 20-year-old time Manchester capsule; the only distinction are Pernice’s sickly sweet melodies and vibrato-less vocals, crinkly like crepe paper, speaking of wounds with the façade of a medicated indifference.
Where previous Pernice Brothers releases like Overcome by Happiness and The World Won’t End were informed by luminous overtones of Big Star and the Beatles, Discover a Lovelier You doesn’t cast such diffused light. Although it employs a barrage of overdubs and vocal tracks like those past albums, its sound is pristinely chiseled like Yours, Mine & Ours (which is to be expected from a careful craftsman like Pernice)—but it’s also slowing melting, like an ice sculpture that tries to survive its first day in the sun. That’s a pretentious way of saying that Discover a Lovelier You can run icy and tepid; while it does correct and perfect the ‘80s-inspired ambitions of the last record, it still doesn’t offer the consistent high of The World Won’t End.
The album is frontloaded with three of its best songs: the sorta optimistic, melancholic reverb of “There Goes the Sun”; “Saddest Quo”, which pits helpless lines like “Trying to be a better person / Hindsight’s twenty and my visibility’s worsening” against a dreamy pop arrangement that echoes Buddy Holly’s “Words of Love”; and “Snow”, which finds the band laying into the paranoid guitar thrusts of Johnny Marr. Discover a Lovelier You‘s most sublime track, “Amazing Glow”, arrives after an extended mixed bag of offerings: some unexciting (“Sell Your Hair”); some uninspired (“Dumb It Down”); and a pleasant, if hardly essential, instrumental (“Discover a Lovelier You”). “Amazing Glow” is worth waiting for, as it achieves the lightheaded, regretful beauty of Pernice’s best work. The narrator, exposed and submissive to the oncoming cruelty (“When it came to the wrecking ball / She swung it effortlessly like it had no weight at all”), lays his song on a slowly wilting, precipice-hungry chorus, perhaps finding temporary release in the heartbreakingly appropriate background harmonies.
The next song, “Subject Drop”, a duet with Blake Hazard, is the kind of subdued power pop exercise that Pernice can, at this point, knock out in his sleep. And then Discover a Lovelier You ends on an even less significant note, bowing out with two songs of admirable construction but fleeting impact. Discover a Lovelier You will certainly satisfy Pernice’s empathetic fan base, but when all is said and done, its highlights aren’t nearly as insistently obvious as the Brothers’ paramount achievements.