The Pains of Being Pure at Heart By Chris Copeland
he Pains of Being Pure at Heart is not a great record, but I have been
playing it often because of its sheer exuberance. The record (by the band of the same name) is simple and derivative, but it’s a joy to listen to. However, the power of the songs comes not from the light pop melodies but from the nuances of the lyrics. A musical bildungsroman, the songs capture the progression of youth—innocence confronting alienation. “Young Adult Friction,” for example, is a song about losing virginity in a library: “Our bodies spent among the dust and microfiche… I never thought I’d come of fourwallsdown.com
age, let alone on a moldy page.” The narrator does not indicate if the encounter is enchanting or disastrous, but the admission that he never thought it would happen paints the scene as a rite of passage, therein infusing the song with the sense of wonder and mystery that accompanies all rites of passage. The lyrics are also clever: “You put your back to the spines, and you said it was fine.” While not exactly Shakespeare, the punning helps the song (and the record) transcend its obvious indie-ness. At the end, the narrator and the girl go separate ways. It’s not sad; it just is. The song is too light to be taken as a meditation on heartbreak.
“Young Adult Friction” leads naturally from high school to college with “The Tenure Itch,” a song about a liaison between a student and a professor: “He says your thoughts need form, but your form’s not hard to find.” The song takes a slightly dark turn though: “His last suggestion, it makes you ill. Still one more lesson leaves you twisting to his will.” Between libraries and university professors, sexuality in these two songs is intertwined with academics. The girl in “The Tenure Itch” yielding (apparently not fully willingly) to her professor reflects the tension between intellectual self-confidence and a need for validation. The young girl in the library Page 1 of 2
in “Young Adult Friction” goes to college and becomes a more tragic version of herself. However, the brevity of the lyrics precludes any deep interpretation of the female psyche. Rather, these songs dance lightly down the road of life, a road that is often fraught with bad decisions and regret as well as moments of ecstatic transcendence. The record is honest in its presentation of teen life and apt in its presentation of growing up. Not all is wine and roses; not all is angst and alienation. Thus, amidst the power pop melodies, the record’s themes of innocence are counterweighted by darkness. The ambiguity of the phrase “You’re my sister” casts a shadow over “This Love is F---ing Right,” shaded further by the lines, “In a dark room we can do just as we like,” and “You can’t go home after where you slept last night.” The song dares you to read into it. The rest of the album has images of teenagers “waiting for death at 19” with “sunken eyes; “black hole kids” whose “arms are a hell;” a wayward teen “in love with Christ and Heroin.” The record can be bleak, yet it never lets you feel sorry for the characters. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart wants to make you like it because of its simplicity; it won’t quite let you embrace that innocence with the ease of other bands, but it ultimately settles on a sense of solace. Some might call the tension irony, but I think that would be giving the band too much credit. I think they’re just having fun without avoiding the harshness of growing up--realism without melancholy. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart is a decent album masquerading as a great one, but it found a place for me by acknowledging the power of now. “Come Saturday” takes an arms-wide-open approach to love: “Now I could stand to be a fixture in your faded family pictures, but I can’t see into the sunset. All I know is that you’re perfect right now.” This is neither a naïve nor an intelligent way to approach a relationship, but it is powerful in its shameless acceptance of something immediate and good. I see Jon Cusak’s character in “High Fidelity” standing outside a former lover’s apartment in the rain, screaming at her to try to work things out, saying “I love you” and “You bitch” in the same breath. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart is that character a year prior, and we know that everything ahead is all just part of getting older. fourwallsdown.com
The record is simple and derivative, but it’s a joy to listen to.
These songs dance lightly down the road of life.
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart wants to make you like it because of its simplicity Page 2 of 2