Belong isn’t an album worried about the prospect of pricking its finger on the serrated edges of the stars, like Carl Sagan leafing through a Dorling Kindersley book about being an astronaut.
They say that the Pains of Being Pure at Heart came out-of-nowhere to release their self-titled debut in 2009. While this isn’t true, it would be an act of tepid historicism to go on and on writing about the splendours of their self-titled EP from 2007, from which “This Love Is Fucking Right!” and “Hey Paul” were re-recorded for the debut album, and the two split 7" singles they made in 2008 with the Parallelograms and Summer Cats. Luckily for the innards of our ears, getting to grips with the band’s biography is kind of important, so we can trace their progress from the macrobiotic noise pop of their early material to the golden thrashing nu-gaze sound of Belong.
That’s not to say, though, that the band have forgotten where they came from. Professing their undying faith in the dated glamour of the 7” format, and named after an unpublished children’s story, the Pains of Being Pure at Heart tap into all our deepest twee-as-fuck fantasies, clad in an oversized knitted jumper and brandishing a battered old copy of Emile and the Detectives.
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart EP was rough and ready, a slipshod slingshot firing off clanking, saliva-swapping, pop songs. However, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart LP was nothing short of a pocket-sized miracle. It sounded like a lost college rock classic: all dreamy, shimmering guitars promising to find little silver linings behind Kip Berman’s overcast sighs. Perfect pop trinkets like “Come Saturday”, “Young Adult Friction” and “Stay Alive” were somehow both pretty and perturbing, a warped and coquettish take on shoegaze, twee pop and the noisier end of what we can (just about) call indie.
The band worked well enough to get good grades in both the “mainstream” and the “underground” music press. And while this inevitably compounded all those wheezing, spluttering media diagnoses of Difficult Second Album Syndrome, the standalone single “Say No to Love” from last year robbed that fear mongering of its potency. Lucky, then, that they were given the all clear by über-producer Flood and mix-master Alan Moulder in the recording of Belong.
Flood is responsible for the Rococo rock opera of Smashing Pumpkins’ Melon Collie and The Infinite Sadness, the forlorn allure of Depeche Mode’s Violator, and the 14 concentric circles of angst that was The Downward Spiral by Nine Inch Nails. Moulder, meanwhile, has worked with My Bloody Valentine on their Glider and Tremolo EPs, and Smashing Pumpkins on Siamese Dream. They’re a formidable production team, no doubt, and they certainly put their own spin on Belong: this is a more animated, more audacious, Pains than we have ever heard before.
Belong is a giddy swoon of swirling guitars and big, bold choruses. Glistening, sleek, it has big ambitions that it announces in cooing little confessions. Bits of it sound more like Sugar (“Girl of 1,000 Dreams”, the last stirring chorus of “Even in Dreams”) or, yes, Siamese Dream-era Pumpkins (“Heaven’s Gonna Happen Now”, “Belong”), than Black Tambourine or the Pastels. It’s overflowing with drifting dream pop elegies, and it has the confidence to not only dream of outer space (as on 2009’s Higher Than the Stars EP), but to build a rocket out of cardboard and tin-foil and to have a good go at reaching them itself. Indeed, Belong isn’t an album worried about the prospect of pricking its finger on the serrated edges of the stars, like Carl Sagan leafing through a Dorling Kindersley book about being an astronaut.
Belong is relieved of the squalid lo-fi strumming, the squealing guitars, and the mushed keys that once obscured Kip Berman’s vocals on, say, the debut’s “Gentle Sons”. Instead, on “Heaven’s Gonna Happen Now”, they are replaced by a more controlled use of feedback scrawls used to express something big and bright and wide, instead of being a purely functional noise pop signifier. And on “Heart in Your Heartbreak”, “The Body”, and “Even in Dreams”, Peggy Wang’s synths are majestic, like a church organ playing out the praises of our favourite new wave songs. Gone too is the Roger McGuinn jangle present on songs like “Stay Alive” and “The Tenure Itch”. On “Belong”, “The Body”, and “My Terrible Friend”, it’s replaced with a puckering, overdriven ecstasy as if the Pains are really relishing the scope provided by Flood and Moulder.
Ultimately, Belong is a concept album about the struggle to make eye contact with someone who you’re think is unaware of your existence. Opener “Belong” fades in with a dulled flash of feedback, initiating these longing glances, but looking away as quickly as possible in a flurry of distortion. “Anne With an E” is the sound of self-reflection wracked by 12-stringed doubt, of a nervous interior monologue conducting its own romantic inquisition. “Girl of 1,000 Dreams” is that interrogation’s distorted aftermath. It’s upbeat, with tiny traces of manic punkish bouncing as a response to the pains of unrequited love. “Too Tough” is the back end of a weirdly quixotic version of the Kübler-Ross Grief Cycle: acceptance.
But, by closer “Strange”, all parties are magically pardoned. Everyone is redeemed. It turns out that the love object also likes My Bloody Valentine, dusty old bookshops and acts of mild, totally ironic, vandalism. And guess what? They like you too. When it’s finished, you’ll probably need to sigh, to catch your breath against the breeze, to accommodate your disbelief at your own damn luck.
Then again, Belong isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of ethically-sourced vegan tea. It’s probably too precious for its own good, a sort of gelded pastel-coloured blur of embarrassed smirks and misread intentions. But, then again, such criticism would ignore how super close they come to making perfect, unapologetically simple, pop songs. And we’ve sorely missed that sort of stuff for quite some time. In an era hell-bent on pornographic, hyper rational, techno-networking, where we’ve been led to believe that every day was Halloween, and that marketing was the most important thing in the whole wide world, we’ve been forced to forget about the simple things. The sole purpose of artists like the Pains of Being Pure at Heart is, of course, to remind us that nothing could be further from the truth, that the simple things are definitely the best: things like French stationery products, hearing about your loved one’s pre-teen low self-esteem, and sitting on faux-leather sofas giggling at Kate Beaton’s Hark A Vagrant.
Like memories of unkept promises, and the tension between lust and mistrust weathered by long periods of painstakingly verbose overanalysis, Belong is drowned in melancholy. It catches itself between getting a masochistic kick out of moping and anticipating the delirious rush of sweetness that comes from its resolution. It’s an irresistible confection, a document of cherry-flavoured kisses, of social inadequacy, of general brow-beaten oddities captured in the most wide-eyed romantic monologue this side of a teenage Tumblog. And you can’t really argue with that, can you?