The Austin band’s druggy, wall-of-sound escapism put them on the map, but their first album in six years sounds more confident without it.
The unsubtle party drug nod, which now scans as very 10 years ago, was never the point. As Pure X guitarist/vocalist Nate Grace told Dummy in 2013, “Pleasure, ecstasy, purity—those ideas are directly related to the act of making music.” And, in the same interview, “You can’t experience pleasure without feeling pain, you cannot know ecstasy without knowing despair.” Pure X, the Austin band’s first album since 2014’s Angel, still jives with Grace’s earlier concept, in which ecstasy isn’t so much the result of listening to the music as a distant, unattainable goal or state of being. But in the six years since Angel, Grace, bassist/vocalist Jesse Jenkins V, drummer Austin Youngblood, and multi-instrumentalist Matty Tommy Davidson have further clarified their sound, creating the brightest and tightest bummer jams of their career.
Album opener “Middle America” sets the scene: “Send help, I’m stranded in Middle America,” sings Grace from a Bible Belt hell he can’t escape. “Send help, I’m losing sense of who I am.” The rest of the record wrestles with finding meaning in a turbulent world, in a country where happiness—let alone ecstasy—is hard to come by. The lyrics offer flashes of beauty between the crush of the everyday. “All the neon skies are going grey,” Jenkins sings on “Fantasy.” “My people work so hard and work so long/Break and fall and disappear.” These are tunes for our times, but also seem built for age-old pursuits: nursing sweaty beers, driving through the Texas desert, diving into a swimming hole.
Pure X arrives in a landscape at once parallel and vastly different from the climate of the band’s soporific first singles. Back in 2009, the recession had wildly altered the prospects of many young people. Careers were put on hold, replaced by Tecate-and-pot-filled warehouses and a DIY sensibility that lived as much on the internet as it did in clubs or practice spaces. “The first time we got on Pitchfork, I think they linked to my MySpace,” Grace told The Austin Chronicle. Much of Pure X is reminiscent of the working-class indie rock of the ’90s, when shit jobs and encroaching suburbia represented an existential threat to bands like Modest Mouse and Built to Spill. Economic uncertainty pokes out between otherwise metaphorical lyrics about relationships and personal growth. “I can’t afford the future/I don’t know my past,” sings Grace on “Making History.” “We’ve been working for nothing for so long.”
Though these slice-of-life musings are sometimes dire, a feeling of patience and acceptance permeates Pure X’s 12 tracks.“I forgive myself for how I hurt myself,” goes one line in “Hollywood.” As with much of the band’s output, the music was recorded live—this time at Good Danny’s Studio in Lockhart, Texas—and carries with it a polished immediacy. Earlier in their career, Pure X had a tendency to muddy Grace and Jenkins’ voices, creating the impression they were singing from inside a hollow or behind a veil. But on Pure X, their deliveries ring clear, timbres unadulterated by fuzz or distortion. The album’s guitars, too, are more pristine, tinged with Americana or imbued with a psychedelic shimmer. Pure X’s druggy, wall-of-sound escapism put them on the map in their early days, but they sound more confident without it.
On previous records, the band sometimes used synths to fill gaps between instruments, lending their sound density and heaviness. They’ve been gradually cleaning up their approach since 2013’s Crawling Up the Stairs, but on Pure X, they do more than wipe away the cobwebs; they take a Dyson to them. Bass, drums, and guitar give these songs a sparer, more intentional character. Across the album, hints of ’60s folk and lustrous ’70s rock are easy to spot. “How Good Does It Get” has a surf-rock shimmer—“How deep does love go?” wonders Grace—while “Grieving Song” matches elegiac lyrics with doleful guitars, a zombie doing the Zombies.
After Angel, it was unclear if Pure X would stay together. The band members had migrated across the region, even started families. Pure X focuses less on that period of upheaval and more on the feeling of moving past it, wisened and ready for what’s next. Eleven years into their career, the smoke has cleared, leaving that age-old enemy of youth: perspective. But chasing pure ecstasy remains a lifelong pursuit of pyrrhic victory. “I can dream,” sings Davidson on the album closer. “I can dream.”
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