Sequencing (the process in which the order and flow of tracks on an album are chosen) is a process that can have immense effects on a listener, effects that are at the same time often subtle and intangible. The choices made in album sequence are easy to take for granted as a listener. This is why I was so surprised that, after only a few listens, I appreciated Pile’s latest album, A Hairshirt of Purpose, so much more when I began my listening with its third track, “Rope’s Length.”
Neither of Hairshirt’s first two tracks are necessarily weaker than the remainder of the album, but they establish the album’s range and identity both too eagerly and too poorly. The former, “Worms,” calls out to songbirds (and prior label-mates) Porches with a plea. Pile characteristically flirt with disjunction. Draped over (uncharacteristically) present effected guitar arpeggiations, vocalist Rick MacGuire’s lyrics hang uncertain and uneasy: “I would never dream of blaming it on you/ So please don’t ask me to stay any longer./ […] It was never supposed to happen to worms like you.” The shimmering track already feels a bit like a masquerade, but this feeling is only amplified by the stark jump-cut to Hairshirt’s second track “Hissing for Peace,” carrying out its own vague but audacious declaration with an equally vague and audacious rally cry. The track partially summons the dark energy of later Daughters (as Pile often do for my ears), which is here presented without the necessary abrasion, restlessness, slack, or complexity that makes that summoning so enticing (a general recklessness better reached on “Grunt Like A Pig” off of 2012’s dripping or the opener of 2015’s You’re Better Than This, “The World Is Your Motel”; even later on Hairshirt, the beast is summoned quite convincingly with “Texas,” “Hairshirt,” and “Fingers”). The result is that neither of these first two songs feel particularly sincere; both are rendered ineffectively performative, and their contrast lacks the gray area that lines these energies, familiar to Pile in their best moments as well as in the remainder of the dynamic and colossally shifting album.
Pile are at their strongest when involved in slippages, designed moments of elasticity and indecision, effects incidental. This happens, for example, in the final chords of “No Bone,” which float and suspend resolution indefinitely. Or look to the queasy harmony and shaky ground of the subsequent “Milkshake.” Crudely — imprecisely — the effect of these slippages is akin to the effect that has led many thinkers about music to remark that non-scale tones and irregularly tuned intervals are blue (i.e., blue note): sitting in the cracks between the heavy associations of major and minor, swimming in an uncertain hue, forfeiting exuberance or full expressive confrontation, shying away to the gray present-tense minutia of tiny shifts in feeling. They get there.
“Leaning On A Wheel” takes its title from this feeling: “Getting in our own way/ And blaming traffic/ And a shitty plan/ And other things that are assumed you understand/ Head down/ And eyes peeled/ I wouldn’t call it driving, more like leaning on a wheel.” Here, this non-committal shrug is regarded as a sort of self-sabotage, but one actually gets a sense of fondness, as McGuire delivers the yodeling leaps that open these lines. It isn’t until the album’s most decisive and clearly framed line when it seems I am really being overtly directed toward one emotive response or another. In the midst of “Leaning On A Wheel,” McGuire, in character, bemoans, “Let’s have a baby to save the marriage that we made up.” Moments like these hint at the literary, and in doing so, they reveal the difficulty behind great ballads where aesthetic unity, narrative weight, and relation must somehow coexist. In many ways, I prefer the moments Pile offer that drift beyond such islands of clarity. My preference leads me to the sections that sit in a mostly ambivalent fog, from which (importantly, I must admit) clear objects emerge. Perhaps Pile’s greatest success is their ability to smoothly inherit and complicate the directive complexity, concept, and construction that rock inherited in the late 90s and early 00s via post-rock, math rock, strains of indie, and the like, all of which are part of a world they ceaselessly call back to.
Following the cinematic “I Don’t Want to do This Anymore” — a short solo piano song that is alien in its simplicity and a little cheap-feeling at that — Hairshirt rounds off its epic-rock-album arc with four escalating and deescalating, winding and unwinding, rocking and unrocking tracks, the last of which, “Fingers,” is the most exciting. Fans of Pile (as well as those of rock at large) will likely find plenty in the songwriting, performance, and production here. But I can’t help but feel that this album gains little from the curious step into unexplored territory (“a more focused and deliberate record,” as vocalist Rick MacGuire states for the album’s press release) that Pile took to make it. Somehow, I miss the blurry picture.