On their 2015 release, You’re Better Than This, Pile stepped away from their usual anxious sound for one track. “Mr. Fish” was instead a song that balanced a subdued vocal and guitar performance against their frenetic live-off-the-floor quality. It was by far the standout of a very good record, and a promise of what was to come from the Boston band.
Now it’s 2017 and they’ve delivered on that promise.
A Hairshirt of Purpose is Pile operating really well on a number of levels. They’ve managed to maintain the feeling of persistent anxiety, but also find space for sadness, sentimentality, and reflection in these tracks. What they’ve created is rock music for adults, as opposed to emotionally stunted rock music made by emotionally stunted adults.
The juxtaposition between these extremes is present from the first track, “Worms”. The album’s motif, a speedy drum roll that occurs a number of times throughout Hairshirt, opens the track like a palpitating heart beat. Then it cuts suddenly and we wade into a wash of chorus-covered guitar, and a plea from singer Rick Maguire: “I would never dream of blaming it on you, so please don’t ask me to stay any longer, anymore.” While it doesn’t fit the standard mould of pop-music heartbreak, this is undoubtedly a break-up record at its core. Even the instrumental track is called “I Don’t Want to Do This Anymore.”
While Hairshirt does lapse into pure dirge or pure rocker on some tracks, the album really shines when it combines all its emotional weight into the same song. “Rope’s Length” speeds up and slows down, builds and crashes, goes dark and light, all in the span of one track. “Leaning On A Wheel” starts with the perfectly distilled line, “Getting in our own way”, and moves patiently until it swells for the final third. These songs are dense and demanding of a listener, and thus don’t work as background music, but with each pass of the record, Hairshirt rewards in new ways.
Nowhere is this more true than the album’s standout track, “Dogs”. It’s no exaggeration to say I have listened to this song hundreds of times over the last month or so. In the span of four and a half minutes, it expresses the anxiety, anger, sadness, and exhaustion of a dying romance: “Then I pretend to sleep. I’d rather on the ground than in your bed. I’ll sleep on the lawn or stay up instead.” In early performances of “Dogs”, Maguire sang, “There’s a deep well of hatred and greed.” Tellingly, by the time it made it to record, all that’s left is, “There’s a deep well that seems mostly empty.” Whatever he thought the romance was, it wasn’t. Whatever passion he thought they shared, he realized they didn’t. The song perfectly encapsulates that feeling when a relationship is gone, the extreme tiredness with occasional flashes of emotion that ultimately fade.
And that’s one of the things that puzzles me, and pleases me, about this record. When most bands make a “tired” album, it sounds glum and awful (see my illustrious colleague’s review for an example). Pile manage to keep the album intense, often propulsive, and never let it feel “phoned in”. They are operating at full capacity even if the music and lyrics suggest they are hurting. It sounds like the kind of tired I am, or the kind of tired I aspire to be.
A hairshirt is a garment worn to seek penance. Coarse cloth and animal hair and mud and sticks and whatever else are all fused together and worn against the chest to cause chafing and discomfort. It’s the equivalent of tattooing the name of someone you hurt on your ankle so you’d have to see it every day. Pile’s A Hairshirt of Purpose serves a very similar function. It’s an unflinching portrait of the end of a romance, the actual end, past all the anger and fighting, when all that’s left is the lingering glow from loving something you will never again have.
It’s a challenging record, but it’s a beaut. Go buy it from Bandcamp or wherever else.