If The Pains of Being Pure At Heart’s self-titled LP was an ’80s movie, it’d probably be Fast Times At Ridgemont High, Amy Heckerling’s 1982 dramedy about mixed-up and horny young people with part-time jobs and full-time angst. The film manages to be gritty and genuine without ever getting too bleak; there’s a decent amount of pop sentimentality in the mix. The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart, which turns 10 this week, thrives on a similar sort of in-betweenness. The awkward characters that populate the New York group’s brisk and clumsy first full-length are also lovesick misfits for whom the simple task of staying alive seems overwhelming. “It sounds like teen drama,” the band’s frontman Kip Berman explained once.
In the tradition of bands like Beat Happening and Belle And Sebastian, the members of the Pains Of Being Pure At Heart celebrate teenageness — nowhere towns, long wasted summers, lust at first sight — with a bit of hindsight. Before Pains, Berman toiled away in a call center and did some some marketing for a company called Drillteam. He also spent time stumbling around Portland, Oregon’s DIY scene, eventually moving to NYC and geeking out over Dear Nora songs with Pains’ founding keyboardist Peggy Wang, who worked full-time for a new startup called BuzzFeed. At the same time, bassist Alex Naidus edited for eMusic’s Canadian website and drummer Kurt Feldman taught music to kids. Their teenage years were in the rearview, but an adolescent-like desire to belong to something lingered — as did their appreciation for the messy mythology of being young and in love.
The record dropped in February 2009 via Slumberland, an act of kismet considering the band’s vibe was clearly informed by the iconic label’s roster of scrappy noise-makers. At first glance, Pains seemed doomed to be typecast as yet another fashionable group with fashionable influences and a retro looking album cover. And while it was true that nothing about the songs felt particularly contemporary, they definitely didn’t sound stale either. The album’s first track, “Contender,” which makes lyrical allusions to the Exploding Hearts and On The Waterfront, was the first song the group wrote together. It’s a mid tempo letter from Berman to his aimless younger self: “You saw the boys in white sing ‘I’m a pretender’ / But you never were / You never were a contender,” he sings, his mopey timbre layered atop Wang’s background melodies.
Things mostly get brighter and noisier from there: The sweet and thrashy “Come Saturday” posits a skipped party as the light at the end of the tunnel, while the Psychocandy-esque closer “Gentle Sons” is about mortality and Mondays: “You stumble down the diamond path / And every breath could be your last,” goes the latter’s hook. The relatively huge-sounding “Stay Alive” teases the kind of room-filling, Creation Records-indebted dream pop that the group turned to when making the album’s 2011 follow-up, Belong. (The Higher Than The Stars EP, which includes a drop-dead gorgeous Saint Etienne remix that is absolutely worth revisiting, came in between.) But the self-titled’s most eternal artifact is probably “Young Adult Friction,” an unselfconsciously twee chant-along about hooking up in a library. The innuendo-laced wordplay is top-notch (“I never thought I would come of age / Let alone on a moldy page”) and Berman and Wang’s call-and-response chorus is pure, jangly joy.
But for all its nostalgic energy, the songs on Pains also reflect another classically teenage concern: uncertainty about the future. “You say you’ve been waiting … waiting since you were born / For a moment when everything’s alright,” Berman sings on the bouncy, distorted “Hey Paul.” It’s hard to look back at albums that came out at the end of the aughts without thinking about the financial crisis — especially ones made by 20-somethings who were attempting to find their place in a bottomed-out economy while simultaneously searching for footing in the shifting musical landscape. Maybe there is a tendency to drift off into an idealized version of the past when things seem really shitty. Listening to the album in 2019, when things are deeply fucked in a different way, it feels borderline magical to spend 35 minutes in a teenage world full of power pop bangers and dusty old books, a place where hearts break and dreams fade but there’s always another weekend on the horizon.
A sad but true fact: Fast Times At Ridgemont High’s significance is sometimes unjustly eclipsed by John Hughes’ oeuvre. But it remains a coming-of-age classic to many, an unflinching and hopelessly quotable tribute to the rollercoaster romance of youth. So far it seems like The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart is destined to be remembered just as fondly.