Music is one of those things that has always given me consistent & reliable feels. The best music connects in a way that’s hard to describe, moving deep in the soul as it effortlessly evokes euphoria, heartbreak, intensity, comfort, new emotions, familiar feelings, and everything in-between. The most meaningful music will be many of those things—and more—with personal growth and the passage of time.
All of that accurately describes what it’s been like listening to Pale Waves’ debut album, 2018’s My Mind Makes Noises, pretty much nonstop for the past 4 weeks. And as much as I’ve been obsessively listening, I’ve been thinking about why I am listening to it now despite my efforts to ignore it over the past year. (More about that in a minute.)
As for why it’s 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, 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 era would have my full attention. On top of that, the music adds a lot of modern pop elements—colorful layers, indelible hooks, and punchier beats than its inspirations—that turn 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 a strangely pleasing mixture. The production is just phenomenal; broad and deep on the low end, crisp and tingling on the high end, and bubbling with texture everywhere in-between. 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 frontwoman 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 choice, 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 style and the musical style (e.g. “This looks like Lydia Deetz singing Taylor Swift!”). Subverting expectations is so fun, and I love this kind of juxtaposition (and a good 80s fashion homage).
Lyrics are a crapshoot. Some music doesn’t prompt me to pay much attention, and other music makes them impossible to ignore. This music got me listening pretty intently to what it had to say. There’s a lyrical vein running through many of the songs that I honestly found unsettling, and made me hesitate to keep listening. As the album progresses to its center, the vein thickens to reveal increasingly raw material: a bittersweet mélange of regret, rejection, insecurity, mental health, self-esteem, and loss—mostly veiled by a glittering sheen and bouncing beat, but sometimes laid bare. There’s lighter material on the way down and out of that intense center, too, but the serious stuff weighs heavily, at least for me.
There are only two or three albums in my life 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 didn’t 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 beats, snaking grooves, plucky riffs, and deep hooks. The sentiment is another. It’s certainly not the first album to plumb the depths of vulnerable, high-key, coming-of-age subject matter, but in this case I find something uniquely—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. Why am I drawn to this? Is it meant for me? Should I feel a kinship 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? How do I deal with the thoughts, feelings, and memories this music dredges up? Worse, what will this strange, sudden obsession look like to everyone else?
The answers to these questions are uncomfortable, and ignoring their source seemed like the best way to not have to think about them. How hard could it be to just not listen to something?
For a good year, the aesthetic appeal of the music kept me coming back, getting me to play a track here or there—usually the emotionally uncomplicated ones—and then retreat to a safe distance. That strategy worked for a while. When the pandemic hit, everyone was affected differently, but—like a lot of other people—it ended up giving me nothing but time to look around and inside myself a lot more intently and unexpectedly than I wanted. As this reflection met the unacknowledged, compounding strain of a pandemic that just would not end, my controlled encounters with this music abruptly gave way to inescapable compulsion, and 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 record broke through barriers I’d put up for many years to avoid dealing with a spate 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 a lifetime of unresolved feelings & experiences. The timing was right, I suppose; the final ingredient to the music’s outsized impact.
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 playing on repeat, it still isn’t entirely comfortable to listen to, yet it continues to be irresistible and highly satisfying. It’s complicated, as they say. Despite what I was shown growing up, emotion shouldn’t be embarrassing. Hopefully, I’ve found some freedom in accepting that what moves me may look weird or stupid to other people, and to not be too concerned with that anymore.
That’s a lot, for sure. Kind of an oddly reverential way to talk about a bunch of songs, but there it is. Don’t think I’m not aware of how closely this treads into Richmond-discovers-Cradle-of-Filth territory.
Still, 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.)