Review Summary: Hey, rockists! It's okay to crack a smile sometimes!
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart are essentially the antithesis to "rock" - that is, the sexed-up, drugged-up, testosterone-driven archetype favored by those journalists who fancy themselves modern-day extensions of that mid-twentieth-century "philosophy" and culture. Their press photos show them eating pizza, lying in grassy fields on a sunny day, horsing around in front of hand-drawn backdrops, and smiling a lot while wearing cardigans and plaid shirts. Their sophomore album is titled Belong
, which flies right in the face of the notion that rockers ought to be "outsiders". All of which makes the band way too easy to write off as yet another insufferably cute indie pop outfit to be hyped up by those persons who have a tendency to wear, uh, cardigans and plaid shirts.
Here's the thing, though - the Pains of Being Pure at Heart are really fucking good at what they do, which mostly involves cranking out superb pop songs with impressive consistency. They already established this much with their excellent self-titled debut, but Belong
still feels like something of a revelation. An altogether more polished affair than its predecessor, largely due to Flood and Alan Moulder's sparkling production, the record's songs are less treble-heavy and sound significantly more confident than those found on The Pains of Being Pure at Heart
. It would be a stretch to call "Belong" merely twee, what with that chunky guitar riff that enters the picture about fifteen seconds in; if the song lacks some of the buoyant charm that defined, say, "Young Adult Friction", it's robust enough to make up for a line as saccharine as "I know it is wrong / but I know we still belong."
Besides, there's plenty of charm to go around; "Girls of 1000 Dreams" is a quick and narcotic burst of energy that perfectly balances the band's sonically dirty tendencies and their unabashedly happy songwriting, its melodies gleaming and guitars rocking with such ferocity that a lyric about waking up at your parents' place sounds blissfully carefree rather than overly self-aware. Belong
captures being young in a way that transcends the typically coy traditions of indie pop and shoots straight for the heart. Yeah, that sounds teeth-gnashingly sugary on paper, but if the glorious synth wash of "The Body" don't trigger some vague sense of happy nostalgia, you might be dead inside. Beyond that, though, the band manage to elegantly encapsulate the sadness of being in your teens, falling in love for the first time, and having it not go as well as you hoped. "Heart in Your Heartbreak" is blessed with one of the most affecting choruses of the year, with Kip Berman singing ruefully, "She was the heart in your heartbreak / she was the miss in your mistake / and no matter what you take / you're never going to forget." It isn't heavy
stuff by any means, which makes its emotional impact all the more startling.
And so we're left with a record that not only sounds terrific, but also has an undeniable and universal appeal. These songs palpably click
in the way that only conventional pop songs can, possessing narcotic hooks as well as just the right amount of schmaltz. You can call it "harmless" and "flaccid", as a condescending review in NME did, or you can choose to really understand the mixture of sadness and optimism in a line like "Everyone is pretty and fun / everyone is lovely and young." Because sure, in their current incarnation, the Pains of Being Pure at Heart aren't exactly going to be getting laid 24/7, but neither are 21st-century teenagers, no matter what our superficially eroticized pop culture says. You could say, then, that in its innocuous sexlessness, Belong
is one of the most unsparingly honest records to be released this year. And that's
not so easy to dismiss, is it?