Catharsis for Pale Blue Eyes on their new album.
Like the claim that there are only so many subjects you can build a joke around, similar limitations it’s reckoned apply to songs.
A recent online post identified twelve, although the topics over and underlapped as you might expect; on the list were things like loss, nostalgia, pain and confusion.
There are obviously exceptions to any rule – we’re looking at you here, Public Service Broadcasting – but because writers generally cherish the connective tissue that empathy from their audience brings, we usually hear about the stuff we already know about.
Pale Blue Eyes have tended to employ this hearts-on-sleeves approach to their work: comprising husband and wife duo Matt and Lucy Board plus bassist Aubrey Simpson, their debut album Souvenirs came in the memory-laden wake of Matt’s father’s death, whilst This House instead is rooted in the grim slow-motion tableau of his mother’s passing five years later.
The effects weren’t just emotionally profound; after the knot was finally undone the Boards packed up their self-built Penquit Mill home studio on the fringes of Dartmoor and relocated to Lucy’s hometown of Sheffield. It felt to her like more than a return; her university dissertation after all had focused on the city’s Avant Garde music scene of the mid-to-late seventies, zeroing in on local electronic pioneers Cabaret Voltaire.
Dark, satanic steel mills, grief and dislocation could have made for some less than comfortable listening, but whilst Matt is adamant that This House is both a ‘more sombre and more ecstatic’ projection of their recent experiences, to listening strangers it never feels voyeuristic or like circling someone’s drain.
Whatever the background, the effect is a largely joyous noise. The motorik opener More – not the only track which dwells on familial relationships – brims with pounding rhythms offset against Matt’s falsetto, light bouncing on top of the darker shades below.
This fusion of purists’ early eighties’ synth pop – the Simmering bears a more than passing Moog-ish resemblance to Depeche Mode’s New Life – and that decade’s later MDMA fuelled good times is guilt-free and intoxicating. There are highs and lows in this often-giddy intermezzo, but Sister’s lov’d up psych swell comes with a hand-holding spirit, whilst the reverb drenched Million Times Over is admirably saucer eyed, suspended in a dimension all of its own.
Pale Blue Eyes aren’t the only pilgrims taking a rickety view on playing inner and outer waves however – W. H. Lung and Django Django being others – and on songs like the funkified Hang Out and via Spaces’ buzzing DIY post-punk, the trio are clearly happy to go wherever their instincts take them.
Often this means not taking things for granted: Heating’s On for example tunnels through using twisted patches, filtered sounds and throbbing drum loops, but courtesy of Lucy is somehow relocated by the unexpected presence of a trumpet.
The seven-minute closer Underwater fits a jarring, solitary pattern though. The mood is opaque, greyed by a white noise haze, the fx-pedalled numbness decked in shoegaze trappings and hypnotically washed in layering drones. The shuddering halt and descent towards introspection tells its own story, of what goes up coming back down again, about extremity and decayed, fractal, unspecified inner peace; it’s a suitably panoramic closing off for the band what have been some entropic chapters.
There might be only so many things you can write a song about, but there are still good songs and bad songs, and This House has on it many more of the former.
With now maybe happiness and hope, who knows where Pale Blue Eyes can go.