Three songs into New Zealand-based Shocking Pinks’ self-titled 2007 record, frontman and only consistent member Nick Harte sings, “Take some medicine, get a bandage, shoot some heroin, see a therapist, drink some tea, build a routine, walk down by the sea, ask for more or less” over a goopy guitar line and ramshackle drums. It’s as accurate portrayal of Harte’s world as any other song he’s written, which all exist in a half-asleep, perpetually-about-to-nod-off state. Even without an explicit mention of heroin in the lyrics, the drug hangs over the 18 songs that appear on this record, which is a compilation of slightly older Shocking Pinks tracks, augmented with a few new ones.
It’s heartbreaking because it’s so simple; Harte virtually whispers his lyrics, well past the point of defeat but not actually broken. It’s the dominant mood of the album, which is about loneliness and the ineffectual ways that we try to escape it.
On record, Harte is damaged. He sings about suddenly arriving on girls’ doorsteps, about the passage of time, about breakups and loss and desperation, and he does it all with warmth and a tricky pop sensibility that presents these songs almost as demos — skeletons of larger tracks that won’t ever exist.
When I say warmth, I mean that literally, often the simple riffs that Harte plays are augmented by ambient passages that smooth out the edges, and make it feel like he’s commiserating with you, instead of just stumbling his way through what it feels like to be alone.
But all this introspection only makes the album more compelling. When a different mood enters the equation, like the ominous “Yes! No!” or the muttered, bile-filled “Victims,” it’s a shock; Harte is dragging us out of his world, and into one less defeated, more angry. Neither of those tracks are the strongest on the album, but they both offer moments of clarity, and a sort of emotional heaviness that makes his songs feel true.
It’s easy to define every record as a breakup record, because the emotions that come with a breakup are so universal that they can be applied to just about every situation: loss, abandonment, confusion, shock. Harte’s music lives in the murky world between all of those. The stance seems to be that acceptance isn’t always positive and isn’t always synonymous with moving forward. Sometimes it means defeat, and Harte sounds nothing if not defeated.
Harte’s only released one new song since ’07, “Double Vision Version,” which came out last year and was meant to lead up to an EP and then another album. In an interview with Under The Radar last year, he said: “I ended up with 386 tracks and I’ve wound it down to … well … I’ve got eight CDs with me at the moment and for the album I’m going to have to wean it down again to a reasonable length. Even the idea of a standard 45 minute album so it can be released on vinyl scares me because I would like to release sort of 75 minutes of music at least. Some songs are 20 minutes long.”
The fact that Harte works this obsessively and successfully — virtually all of his songs are gems in their own way — points to a purity of vision: a depressing vision, but still, it’s some kind of vision. So when he sings “I gotta find a way to make it all make sense again,” on “End Of The World,” it’s as desperate as anything else, but it also feels like a statement of process. He’ll get there.