[20 March 2014]
When Say Yes to Love, the debut LP by the Syracuse punk outfit Perfect Pussy, dropped into my inbox some weeks ago, I was taken aback. I was expecting the album to come in, so when I saw the subject line which contained the phrase “Perfect P____”, I knew immediately what it was. But, I wondered to myself, why the underline? Any band that names itself Perfect Pussy—and, more importantly, sounds like Perfect Pussy—isn’t one that goes out of its way to make compromises, especially with regards to censorship. At one point on Say Yes to Love, frontwoman and tortured poet Meredith Graves sings/shouts, “I want to fuck myself, and I want to eat myself / Broad back and bad tits, yes, I know my kind.” Perfect Pussy isn’t just as upfront as possible about its intentions; it makes it clear beyond a reasonable doubt that it sure as hell isn’t going to make any apologies, either. To have my first encounter with this album in the form of an email with a censored subject line was a strange thing, to say the least.
But, upon taking in all 23 minutes of Say Yes to Love, the line between brutally honest—my initial estimation of Perfect Pussy—and self-restraint, a quality key to the LP’s songwriting formula, became blurred. This is visceral, jarring punk rock that leaps out from the speakers, with stabs of feedback violently clanging against one’s eardrums. Graves uses every inch of lyrical space she’s given to exorcise a whole legion of demons, spanning love, success, and self-image. Her forthcoming personality is such that when in “Dig” she intones, “You should shut your mouth because language means nothing,” it’s obvious she’s at least half joking. Raw, jarring language is half of the Perfect Pussy equation.
However, Perfect Pussy isn’t a group that uses feedback merely to accost the listener. An overwhelming majority, if not all, of Say Yes to Love consists of the kind of stuff most people keep deep under wraps, even to those they hold most dearly in their lives. Lines like the ones that conclude opener “Driver”, which feature some of Graves’ sharpest words, are the kind that usually come at the climatic, soul-purging moment in a person’s life:
Forged by the lies I told myself
Lies like “I will be protected”
Like “death might forget me”
Like “home is wherever I’m never invited”
Like “my voice provides a light”
Like “I can have everything I want before I die”
People usually need to work up to that point before rattling off such existential woes, but Graves lays them out in the open, right there in the first cut of her band’s first studio record. It makes sense, then, that the squalls of noise and feedback that form the foreground of Say Yes to Love are where they are: even honesty as unflinching as this requires some degree of protection. Even punks have beating hearts, too.
There are instances when her lyrics falter, whether by the utilization of dramatic sounding but impenetrable images (on “Driver”: “I know that hurt can go on forever / It strips the taste from the constellations”) or the banal language of the alt lit movement (on “Advance Upon the Real”: “I have limitations when it comes to my desiring / And complicated feelings on desire and desiring”). But, be that as it may, Graves is undoubtedly the star of Say Yes to Love, and not just because her presence here is so assertive. The music that backs her frequently astute and cutting observations gives her plenty of space to dominate the record. Beneath the distortion worship that makes up the majority of these eight songs lay a collection of very simply written cuts. In an interview with Radar, Graves detailed the recording process for the album:
But when we record it’s very interesting because Ray [McAndrew, guitar], Garrett [Koloski, drums], and Greg [Ambler, bass] go in to record… that’s a totally clean record… The noise isn’t fake. The noise is me and Shaun making noise on purpose… There’s no distortion on Ray’s Guitar, and Greg’s bass is clean and Garrett’s drums are really poppy, then Shaun comes in with a whole set of machines just designed to make screaming noise, then I come in and make a bunch of screaming noise, and all of this is happening at once… Everyone’s writing on top of each other.
While not totally bare-bones, the songwriting approach here is unfussy, giving Graves maximum space to wring out her heart’s troubles. This methodolgy, unfortunately, becomes Say Yes to Love’s greatest undoing.
Take “Interference Fits”, the lead single off the LP, which features Graves’ strongest narrative, wherein she documents the pains of growing up and falling in love. This is where the record gets its title: “Since when did we all decide to give up? / Since when do we say yes to love?” It’s an emotional bulldozer of a lyric that’s done complete disservice by the arbitrary noise that cuts in and out of the song. The songwriting method described by Graves is one that sets itself up to produce arbitrary results; in making a disconnect between the clean foundations of the song and the noise atop it, Perfect Pussy turns Say Yes to Love into a strange cut-and-paste job. This isn’t to say that the album would have been better had it been made up just of the clean foundations that came before the noise as distortion is a sensible and indeed crucial aspect of the sound here. Graves’ intense lyricism would definitely be out of place in a pop album. However, the foundations and the noise laid atop it play out like disparate elements. The noise feels like an after-the-fact rather than a natural product of the emotions being expressed by the music. Clash is an integral facet of punk, admittedly, but the clash here often undercuts the emotional poignancy waiting to be fully unleashed.
It doesn’t help, furthermore, that Say Yes to Love concludes with eight minutes of aimless noise, slogging rather than gunning full-throttle to its conclusion. Considering that this affair runs a lightning-fast 23 minutes, the group’s choice to give up a third of the music to such fiddling is disappointing, to say the least. Graves’ lyrics, being the highlight of the LP, are sorely missed here, as are her emphatic vocals. Undoubtedly, Perfect Pussy are shaping up to be a tour de force of an outfit, grabbing national attention in publications like Rolling Stone and Pitchfork despite having only an EP and this LP to its name. There’s real talent here. However, these unflinchingly honest punks still have yet to figure out what to do with all the noise they channel.
But, then again, maybe all that’s been written here doesn’t matter. Graves concludes “Dig” with, “But if I’m anything less than perfection / Well, shit, nobody told me!” One can fault Perfect Pussy all he likes, but perhaps the most endearing fact of this band is that they make it explicitly clear that they do not give a fuck what you think. That is a punk cliché, to be sure, but the sentiment here is far from facile; it’s tangible, practically jetting out of the amplifiers. To see a group own its own sound so assertively and genuinely is a rare and powerful thing; it’s maybe just enough to make you want to say yes to love.