Pure X, ‘Crawling Up the Stairs’ – Album Review
The most prominent emotion on ‘Crawling Up the Stairs’ is frustration. On the record’s second track, ‘Someone Else,’ vocalist Nate Grace growls out the line “You know I earned it / So, c’mon, and give me all your / love” like an unhinged lover shouting self-loathing into the dark. It’s one of most devastating and immediate moments in rock music this year. Grace’s voice roils into a teeth-gritted mess as the words seem to roar out of him from somewhere deep. By contrast, the music is cloudy, calm and isolated, causing the words to sound like they’re being yelled into an uncaring void.
With ‘Someone Else,’ it becomes quickly apparent Pure X’s sophomore full-length has more to communicate than the atmospherically dense, slow-core dissertations of their (excellent) debut, ‘Pleasure.’ That album was by no means an empty-headed exercise in ashen dream-pop, but on ‘Something Else,’ the above-cited line represents all facets of the record’s outlook. It’s the kind of thing one would immediately regret saying to another person — a statement of irrational solipsistic entitlement driven by codependent romantic frustrations and self-hatred. If it’s your first listen, you might not be paying close enough attention to know how those lyrics fit in with the rest of the song, but Grace’s affectation is so perfectly executed it’s impossible not to understand everything in that single moment.
A mere two songs into ‘Crawling Up the Stairs,’ questions begin to arise, mostly regarding the distance the band has traveled since ‘Pleasure.’ Musically, it feels like the trio realized the kind of emotional power they might give their dreary, aching, reverb-addled sonic landscapes if they were to simply raise their voices above a shoegaze-y whisper. But if you do a little digging, it’s not hard to find where Grace was at mentally when he and Pure X’s bassist, Jesse Jenkins, wrote the album. Grace was laid up for six months with a leg injury and no means to pay for surgery. He experienced significant self-doubt and insomnia and cites as inspiration a “vision” he had of crawling up an infinite staircase and battling his “shadow self.” It might sound a little pretentious at first, but the album easily outpaces the idea. In fact, the title track is only the first song on the record.
Pure X are still working within the realm of bottomless echo chamber sonics and slow-motion psychedelic guitar molds, but thanks to more sophisticated synth arrangements and the newfound vocal and lyrical clarity, these songs have an insular, gothic feel. Where ‘Pleasure’ was almost nothing but thickened atmosphere, ‘Crawling Up the Stairs’ feels like those elements are being used to build an environment of depressed isolation and disillusioned anxiety. Though ultimately it’s the kind of music that seeks to comfort and bandage those emotions, rather than sulk in and perpetuate them. There’s catharsis and light and hope to be found at the end of the darkened tunnel.
‘Shadow and Lies’ might work even better than ‘Someone Else.’ The subject matter is more straightforward compared to the latter track’s brutal dissection of romantic identity issues, even trite with its cry of “everything I’ve been told about life is bullshit,” but its execution is stunning. Grace’s voice builds into a wild rasp as he sings of “screaming at the sky”; it then devolves into tuneless obscenity, a tearful backing vocal riding on a wave of white noise and feedback. It’s reminiscent of the frustration Roger Waters exuded on latter-day Pink Floyd material, except it’s filtered through 20-something social anxiet — the kind of thing that gives way to unintelligible screaming when words otherwise fail to do the emotions justice
Those pent up moments are wisely spread across the record, and elsewhere you get the ambient piece ‘Written In Slime’ and subtle beauties like the Jenkins-penned ‘Things In My Head’ and ‘Thousand Year Old Child,’ which are no less laced with pathos. Though even the latter track, a shoegaze-y rumination on aging out of a relationship, ends with a widescreen falsetto scree. It really speaks to how perfectly ‘Crawling Up The Stairs’ is sequenced.
Following ‘Thousand Year Old Child’ is ‘Rain at Down,’ a glimmering instrumental piece where the outside world finally seeps into the record. ‘All Of the Future (All Of the Past)’ closes out the album with a seance-like delivery of the lines “Let go of your reasons / Let yourself be loved / It’s been long enough / Been alone enough / No separation / No you or them / Let it in / give it up.” With everything that’s lead up to it, Pure X earn the moment through and through, and it becomes the release at the end of an arc of raging emotional tumult. And it’s beautiful.