Kip Berman, leader of The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, almost called his new album “Welcome to the Jangle”. He’s aware of his reputation. He’s sort of indie pop’s Boy Who Lived, the guy who five years ago somehow brought 2003 back as though verbose band names and uncompromising innocence had never gone out of style. Even now that every other rock band’s busy smoothing out their R&B licks, Berman’s chirping “I just wanna be yours!” along a big rock candy melody. You cannot break this dude.
Days of Abandon, the third album under the Pains of Being Pure at Heart banner, clears out some of the scuzz that fogged the band’s first two efforts, 2009’s self-titled and 2011’s Belong. This time, Pains isn’t really a band anymore. Berman parted ways on amicable terms with some of his former bandmates and approached this new record as more of a group project with loose collaborators. Bassist Alex Naidus and drummer Kurt Feldman still appear on the credits, this time joined by Jen Goma from A Sunny Day in Glasglow, who supplies a solid portion of the vocals. The record sounds more deliberately articulated and far less volatile, trading psych gusto for clipped quirk. Horns make their debut with the band. I’m reminded of The New Pornographers at their most chilled.
The sugar headache I get from Abandon isn’t a result of Berman overdoing it, even though he’s writing songs called “Art Smock” and “Beautiful You” and “Masokissed” (maybe that last one is overdone). The album snaps me back to a time I still don’t quite have my head around. That first round of blog bands, right after “blog” slipped into common usage, made some of the sunniest, sweetest songs in pop’s history. It’s a time you remember as dark until you think about its music. Pains revisits that space lushly here, indulging hazed crescendos without veering into melodrama. Berman keeps a light touch as he navigates the dynamics of his nostalgia.
But is it nostalgia? I don’t know if Berman is actively regressing to a warm past. It could be he’s aiming for something timeless and this is how it comes out. He leans on perennial figures like Jesus and Eurydice in his lyrics, appealing to their utility as archetypes, though it tends to feel phoned-in. “Eurydice, I’ll never stop losing you,” goes the big, crashing chorus on “Eurydice”. Yeah, it has a gold-toned catchiness to it, but that line’s the first thing a newbie poet writes about Eurydice. She is loss personified. So what?
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart don’t make challenging music, but they’ve never wanted to. That’s fine and there’s room for it; with all the creepy, skull-gnawing stuff out there, it’s nice that there’s still a corner of Brooklyn for a guy who makes adorable vintage pop without a scrap of irony. He’ll snag a bass tone from The Stone Roses and wrap platinum tinsel around it and you get a two-and-a-half-minute ditty called “Until the Sun Explodes”. He’ll give Goma the mic while he maps out a series of post-punk riffs that would almost sound like Interpol if it weren’t for the bright and shiny synths orbiting them on “Kelly”. He’s quick with a melody and would never dream of bogging down his tone.
Berman doesn’t like to repeat himself on record, and that’s part of why he’s earned such a loyal following. Pains stay consistent without treading old ground. Anyone who loved the self-titled debut and 2011’s Belong should love this one, too, though each earn their love in slightly different ways. Abandon lets Berman’s skillful songcraft bloom under a new quality of light. Listen to the way “The Asp at My Chest” closes out the whole affair with a waft of brass, and you’ll hear a new kind of dusk glowing on Pains. It’s not particularly ambitious, but it’s incredibly pleasant, and you’ve got to hand it to a guy who can keep a smile up even as he’s skipping through his melancholy. Welcome back to the jangle.
Essential Tracks: “Kelly”, “The Asp at My Chest”