Everything the Pains of Being Pure At Heart do seems effortless. Vocal hooks, effortless; Belle and Sebastian-esque vignettes ripe with detail and pathos, effortless; Jesus and Mary Chain feedback, Jonny Marr jangle, classics straight off a C86 compilation mixtape from the 1980s, all seem to breeze past without any exertion on the part of anyone in the band. Of course, all that effortlessness is an illusion; if anything, it takes a hell of a lot of exertion to make pop sound this easy. But that doesn’t make it any less compelling. For the whole of their set in a packed yet uncharacteristically balmy Cellar, the crowd were treated to another impeccably crafted gem after another, drawn from everything from their 2009 debut to teasers from their upcoming LP, due out in July, marking something of a kaleidoscopic career retrospective. It almost seems as if the Pains of Being Pure at Heart occupy their own little world, where sophomore album difficulties don’t exist, tiresome worries about what constitutes “real indie” are totally sidestepped and the songs and the enthusiasm never dry up.
The sceptics would fret about the semblance of eternal youthful romanticism on the part of frontman Kip Berman: even if the past three albums might have engendered some sense of evolution in that the characters Berman portrays no longer seem completely divorced from the perils of post-adolescence, the thematic focus nonetheless revolves around a very teenage kind of love. Their debut album’s song titles, from standout and live favourite “Young Adult Friction” to the extreme of “A Teenager in Love”, confirm this; if the last album’s titles have eschewed direct appeals to youth and moved on to puns like “Masokissed”, the sentimental love the songs themselves portray nonetheless seem more feasibly the product of youth than of maturity. Indeed, Berman strikes as something of a romantic idealist, if not necessarily a perennially thwarted one. But there’s something undeniably affecting about how sincere (and yes, earnest) he seems: whether thanking departing tour partners the Night Flowers for their companionship on the road or the audience for being so welcoming or Oxford for being so beautiful, there’s no question of the size of Berman’s heart or of any of those coming across as stale or hackneyed. And even the sunny bliss of timeless singalongs like “The Tenure Itch” mask wry shrugs at the sight of someone you love fall into an abusive sexual relationship. Whatever cloying aftertaste the uniform positivity might have left for those not alert to the bittersweet undertones was easily washed down with Red Stripe and drunkenness.
In other words, the challenge of going to a Pains of Pure at Heart gig as a lover of high-end frequency-saturated indie is to come out of it with a sense of perspective. Their music is never going to change the world, true, and one wonders if the fact a band whose first two albums were released to such widespread adoration now find themselves playing the Cellar instead of, say, the Bullingdon or O2, has as much to do with the fact that the music industry has moved a long way away from indie’s last mid-noughties heyday as it does with the band’s evident independent ethos. The crowd, too, skewed heavily white and rather male, matches much of the stereotype critics of indie’s many ivory towers lay as an accusation. But for an hour and a bit no one in that room would have cared, and I doubt even their critics would have cared either if they were there too. As far as intelligent, escapist, summery bliss goes, it was by all accounts a hell of a Saturday night.