Purity is an easy pose to strike but a hard look to maintain. On its first album, 2011′s Pleasure, Texas slow-crawl psych group Pure X showed a total command of a very specific mood: dusky, sexy desert rock cool. The guitars were molten, the vocals were equal parts Velvet Underground, Galaxie 500 and Yo La Tengo, and the song titles were really, really short—two words at most. On the band’s latest album, Crawling Up The Stairs, Pure X has revealed an interest in a wider range of recording techniques, a more eccentric instrumental breadth and a burgeoning lucidity—seriously, there’s an eight word title here—but the most impressive leap is the transition into more emotionally mature, unguarded songwriting.
It’s not surprising that Crawling Up The Stairs grew out of some emotional turmoil and geographic upheaval. According to a recent interview with Dummy, each member of the band was dealing with a major life change in the time between Pleasure and the new record. Guitarist Nate Grace suffered a knee injury from a skateboarding accident, bassist Jesse Jenkins saw a relationship end and drummer Austin Youngblood relocated to L.A. to be with his girlfriend. These aren’t tragic developments but in the easygoing, glacial world of Pure X they feel like shocking developments. “During the last record I felt like I was already dead,” says Grace in the interview. “Like I was a ghost making a record for other ghosts. Then I got a true taste of my own personal hell and I was terrified beyond belief. I suddenly wanted to live very badly, to be as alive as fucking possible.”
That type of vulnerability is apparent in these songs, which take more risks and provide more chances for embarrassment than the band’s early work. “Someone Else” signals the band’s new found interest in vocal performance, particularly the way a stray line can be pushed and dragged into darker places by the dramatic, almost melodramatic singing. It’s a song that alternates between lost highway swoons à la Chris Isaak and the pained histrionics of Okkervil River’s Will Sheff. “Come on break me,” sings Grace at the song’s opening, but by the end he already sounds broken, shattered into a million pieces and left for dead. It’s recorded in a way that makes you feel the spit on the microphone. “Come on make me feel something baby/I don’t give a fuck,” he seethes. “You know I earned it/So come on and give me all your love.”
Along with the apocalyptic sexual frustration, the album makes room for some moments of playful beauty, though it still comes coated in a layer of self-doubt and shame. Highlight “I Fear What I Feel,” a percolating piece of Dump-like lava lamp funk in falsetto, uses a patient bass line, steady drums and clinking guitars to conjure up an otherworldly, sensual experience. The sad-bastard pop freakout Shadows And Lies again lets Grace push his vocal chords to the breaking point, here in the service of more conventional rock catharsis. For all the bleak, desolate themes on the album, there are still moments of befuddled wonder (How Did You Find Me) and wondrous befuddlement (Thousand Year Old Child). There’s an ecstatic curiosity to everything the band touches here.
Not all the experiments work. Written In The Slime holds you at a distance, using smeared guitar tones, New Age synths and a vocoder to create a creeping feeling of dread that’s not as evocative as intended. It’s like a cut from Neil Young’s Trans flattened out into a dreary plateau. I Came From Nowhere is an equally obtuse, uneventful walk through a barren landscape. It’s the type of sketch that Deerhunter could stretch into an alluring art-rock gem, but in Pure X’s coarse hands it lands with a thud. After hearing the band speak so clearly and so directly, it’s frustrating to hear them lapse into a mumble again.
“Let go of your reasons/And let yourself be loved,” sings Grace on the album’s closing track, All Of The Future (All Of The Past). These moments of simultaneous resilience and resignation are what keep the record from teetering into the abyss. While this is a fearful, trepidatious record, it’s not without hope. Pure X may not be particularly pure anymore, but it’s a pleasure to have them down in the muck with the rest of us.