Content warnings: Mental health, death of a loved one, some strong language.
Music is an ever-changing experience. It can be euphoric, heartbreaking, relatable, abstract, and sometimes a bit embarrassing, depending on time and circumstance. At the time of writing, I’ve been experiencing all of these things while listening to Pale Waves’ debut album, 2018’s My Mind Makes Noises, almost exclusively for the past 4 weeks—quickly placing it in a very rare circle of binge-listened albums. As much as I’ve been obsessively listening, I have been equally obsessing over why I am listening to it now, after honestly trying to ignore it for nearly two years. We’ll get to that in a minute.
As for why it has become such an epic earworm, there’s one clear answer: precedent. Anyone with ears—and the band itself—has linked the album’s sound back to late 80s and early 90s music from bands like The Cure and The Primitives, along with a smattering of Simple Minds, ABC, Depeche Mode, Pet Shop Boys, New Order, and more. That’s literally the soundtrack to my formative teenage years and the foundation of my musical taste, so it’s no surprise that a new band borrowing from that sound would have my full attention. On top of that, the music adds a lot of modern pop elements—colorful layers, stronger hooks, and punchier beats than its inspirations—turning it into an even more compelling sound. Honestly, I hear as much Madonna in some of the music as I do Robert Smith, and that’s not a bad thing! The production is just phenomenal; broad and deep on the low end, and crisp and tingling on the high end. The whole thing is sonically gorgeous, and I just can’t stop listening.
There’s also the band’s image, which is hard to overlook. Every video and photo invariably focuses on vocalist Heather Baron-Gracie and her classic goth look, which is both an obvious and perfect compliment to the album’s influences. Ciàra—the drummer—also sports a serious goth aesthetic. It’s an interesting thing, because not everyone thinks the music matches the “look” (not that it has to—I mean, take The Cure and “Friday I’m In Love” or any of their other bubbly bangers as Exhibit A—but certain people are wired toward certain expectations). So, depending on who you ask, there’s a perceived mismatch between the band’s look and the actual music (e.g. “This looks like Lydia Deetz singing Taylor Swift!”). Subverting expectations is so fun, and I love this kind of juxtaposition.
I haven’t been one to focus much on lyrics, but evidently that page has now turned. There’s a lyrical vein running through many of the songs that has been hard to square up, and gave me pause when I first ran across the album. As it progresses to its center, the vein thickens to reveal increasingly raw material: a bittersweet cocktail of regret, rejection, insecurity, mental health, self-esteem, and loss—mostly veiled by a glittering sheen and bouncing beat, but sometimes laid bare. There are lighter themes on the way down and out of that intense center, too, but the serious stuff weighs heavily.
There are only two or three albums that I would classify as pivotal—music that happened to coincide with a time of personal transformation, tumbling me into new currents and tinting my life a different color after listening. I absolutely did not expect this relatively obscure, flawed, yet charming pop record to be one of those, suddenly pushing up a mountain in the middle of my life, overshadowing everything.
The music is an aesthetic bullseye; that’s definitely part of the qualification. I’m 100% a sucker for moody pop music, and this record is chockablock with punchy drums, snaking bass grooves, plucky guitars, and deep hooks. The sentiment is another. It’s certainly not the first album to broach this subject matter, but in this case there’s something more—I want to say piercing?—about it. The vocals are emotive as hell, and the delivery is unexpectedly unguarded. I have squirmed in a sort of embarrassment, wondering if an aging Gen X dude has any right to indulge in anything so young, confessional, intimate, and feminine. Is this meant for me? Should I connect with any this? What if I do? What if the songs wracked with heartbreak & turmoil are the ones that move me the most? What does that say about me? Worse, what will everyone think about me if I really embrace this?
There’s also my own sentiment. In the end, these questions are all about the baggage I’m carrying, and I have to accept that it’s less the lyrics that have made me uncomfortable and more my own feelings and experiences projected onto them. I’ll probably always have these questions, and not just about this music or this band.
That’s largely why I actively tried to ignore this album for quite some time, not wanting to break the dam that I sensed was standing between me and something uncomfortably real. But, over that time, I was repeatedly drawn back to the undeniable aesthetic appeal of the music, and played a track here or there—usually the emotionally uncomplicated ones—and then retreated to a safe distance. But my resolve couldn’t last forever. Recently, the unacknowledged, compounding strain of the pandemic blossomed into a fever pitch, and those controlled encounters abruptly gave way to inescapable compulsion. I started letting the album play front to back, repeatedly.
The result was unexpected, but—in retrospect—should have been obvious. This is going to sound terribly emo, but the unapologetic catharsis of this album broke through barriers I’d put up for many years to avoid dealing with a whole slew of unpleasant issues. It’s as if the music sent my brain back in time, scooping up the emotional intensity of my teenage years and pouring it over all the experiences I’ve had since then. I found myself fully immersed in those piercing lyrics, and beginning to reconcile the wash of memories and emotions they released. The timing was right, I suppose—the third ingredient to the music’s outsized impact. It’s been heavy, but it’s not all bad. Gratefully, there are also plenty of surprisingly warm, hopeful, yearning feelings mixed up with the hard stuff.
Listening is a pulse oscillating between joy and sadness, bounded by a feeling of being profoundly alive and awake.
Music is supposed to make you feel something, and this album has the rare distinction of reaching maximum resonance, both musically and emotionally. Listening is a pulse oscillating between joy and sadness, bounded by a feeling of being profoundly alive and awake. Even now, after weeks of repeated listening, it still isn’t entirely comfortable to listen to, yet it continues to be irresistible and highly satisfying. It’s complicated, as they say. Whether done consciously or not, I think that’s largely what this music was written to do—liberate emotions. Probably for the songwriter, first and foremost, but here I am, caught in the wake. Despite what I feel I was taught by example growing up, emotion shouldn’t be embarrassing. I’ve hopefully found lasting freedom in accepting that what moves me may look weird or stupid to other people. I’m just too damn old to be concerned with that anymore. I love what I love, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.
So, yeah. That’s a lot to unpack, for sure. But there it is. This album—the painful, the soul-baring, the wistful, the joyous, and the euphoric—is wrapped in some of the most sparkling melodies and killer grooves this side of 1989. There is not only a musical connection, but now an emotional one. Isn’t that the best kind of music? That saturating, soul-connecting music that bypasses all logic and goes straight to the heart? It really does seem like the kind of thing I would have listened to as a moody teenager. Evidently, you can’t J.Crew the goth out of yourself, no matter how many pairs of sensible chinos are folded neatly in your closet. A part of me will always be that weird kid that wore a black trench coat and Disintegration t-shirt to school (even on hot Texas days. Commitment!) and is forever drawn to music that lives in that blended space between the joy and pain of life. I know it won’t last forever, but right now this music is a mood, and it’s everything I need.
I guess I’m emo now.
(I wrote something about Andrew W.K. a few years ago, whose music had an effect on me for similar reasons. Check-a check-it out.)