[14 May 2014]
PopMatters Music Editor
After becoming pretty much synonymous with new school noise-pop with their first two albums, the Pains of Being Pure at Heart wouldn’t be a band you’d think would be going through identity issues at this point. But the third full-length Days of Abandon finds the Pains in flux, with a new sound that’s crisper and cleaner as well as a lineup now reconfigured around mainman Kip Berman and a cast of collaborators supporting him. On the one hand, the Pains’ musicianship has not just caught up to the charms of their trademark indie-pop appeal, but has surpassed it, with Berman and company no longer depending on nostalgia or some other intangible, ineffable quality this time around. On the flipside, though, charm and nostalgia were precisely the most endearing and identifiable traits that helped the Pains of Being Pure at Heart stand out as first among equals in its cohort of ‘90s revivalists, so there are tradeoffs between Berman’s greater proficiency as a songwriter and the warm, fuzzy feelings the band radiated with when it made its mark with its self-titled 2009 debut.
Whatever perspective you have of the immaculate pieces Berman’s come up with on Days of Abandon, it’s hard to argue that the Pains of Being Pure at Heart aren’t the leading lights of their particular milieu, channeling ‘80s and ‘90s twee underground-pop idioms and giving them new life. The sugary-sweet vocal turns, the wistful guitar melodies, the blissfully melancholy tone—these elements that Berman has mastered are molded with an increased level of care and craftsmanship that clearly exceeds the shambling naïveté at the roots of the Pains’ indie-pop family tree. “Masokissed”, for one, is right in what should be the Pains’ comfort zone, as Berman runs with melodies and vocal parts that could’ve been lifted from Heavenly, but makes them feel more expansive, thanks to the resonance of the jangling guitars and the clarity of the production. A yet richer and more complete rendering of the pleasures of the Pains is “Beautiful You”, a patiently unfolding six-minute guitar-pop composition that develops and blooms into something epic at its own pace. Slow-fast-slow, quiet-loud-quiet, “Beautiful You” finds the Pains at their most tender and strong at the same time, with teasing flourishes and chiming guitars billowing into the grand alterna gestures that Berman couldn’t quite pull off on 2011’s Belong.
If anything, Days of Abandon might just be where the Pains of Being Pure at Heart coulda, shoulda headed all along after their first album, considering how the group’s approach never felt big enough for Belong‘s stabs at throwback anthems. In contrast, “Simple and Sure” lives up to its title, as Berman’s breezy strum builds nicely into a layered melody, with a bit of keyboard and background singing adding texture to reinforce the thinly cooed chorus of “It might be simple but I’m sure / I just want to be yours.” More impressively, the deceptively lush “Life After Life” and the gently bopping “Kelly” (both of which feature A Sunny Day in Glasgow’s Jen Goma on lead vocals) combine chamber-pop elements with Berman’s sweet tooth for guitar-centric alt-rock to find just the right scale for his aesthetic sensibility. Especially on “Life After Life”, which displays added intricacy and imagination as it weaves together horn arrangements and angular melodies, the Pains discover a happy medium befitting an artistic vision that’s more ambitious than that of their K Records international pop underground predecessors, but also less bombastic than the Alternative Nation rock-outs Berman tried to match up to on Belong.
And yet, even though this latest effort is more accomplished and skillfully executed than their previous outings, you can’t help but feel that Days of Abandon doesn’t quite sink in and have the staying power that the Pains’ best work had and still has, that there’s not quite the same kind of heart and soul in its heartbreak. In some cases, it’s because the songs can almost seem like they’re refined to the point that they become clinical and sterile, swapping visceral appeal for sophistication and losing in the bargain. That’s an inkling you get right at the beginning with the slight opening number “Art Smock”, which comes off too delicate and frail in the shy vocals and quiet acoustic strum as Berman attempts to grasp at some Platonic ideal of fragile indie-pop takes him too far away from his generally right-on instincts. The same goes for the overly deliberate “Coral and Gold”, which dithers around with atmosphere too much and misses its window of opportunity by opening up into a blossoming melody a little too late to grab and hold your attention.
But what makes Days of Abandon less warm and immediate than the Pains’ previous peaks is that even as Berman has broadened his palette and expanded his range of possibilities, his musical vocabulary seems more borrowed and derivative than before. In other words, the irony is that while Berman has become a better, more canny songwriter, he’s become a less original one too. Even the album’s more compelling pieces have their been-there-heard-that passages, particularly the way you can’t quite shake how “Beautiful You” sounds like the Pains’ homage to Smashing Pumpkins paying tribute to the Cure, with a touch of My Bloody Valentine noise candy sneaking in, as if to remind you of the influences Berman already wore on his sleeve. Without a musical language that’s more his own, Berman tends to fall back on recycled tones and accents when he’s at his most ambitious on Days of Abandon, like when you catch yourself humming “Just Like Heaven” to yourself on the grunge-poppy “Until the Sun Explodes” or when you hear how “Eurydice” intros to a Loveless-like sheet of shoegaze, then goes out to vocal lines that somehow approximate the Arcade Fire doing a version of the National’s “Graceless”.
Ultimately, Days of Abandon is an album that feels like the Pains of Being Pure at Heart are trying to settle into a new sense of what it is as a band, whether that’s because Kip Berman is still continuing to find his voice as a songwriter or because his music sometimes sounds more like its influences than what it once was not so long ago. That’s the surprising outcome to Days of Abandon, considering that the Pains of Being Pure at Heart had more of a defined identity before the new album than after it.