The overall atmosphere of Pure Bathing Culture’s sophomore full-length, Pray for Rain, is one of merciless cheeriness — the kind perpetuated by the California drought, bringing sunshine day after day as plants wither and streams run dry. Lead singer Sarah Vesprille’s lyrics bring out the more sinister, heavy undercurrent of the havoc wrought by those golden rays. Throughout Pray for Rain, she and bandmate Daniel Hindman labor over ideas about connection, communication, and staying true to oneself creatively, filtering their own experiences through a wider lens of how hard it can be to figure out a path through early adulthood while attempting to keep all your childhood dreams intact.
Much of the album floats through a light, tropical soundscape that evokes ’80s yacht rock, a touch more polished and less murky than their 2013 debut, Moon Tides. The juxtaposition of bright melodies and gloomy themes is an approach as old as pop music itself, to be sure, but Hindman and Vesprille make it their own by never losing sight of the interplay between the two — the tragic and comic masks that are nothing more than two sides of the same coin.
Album opener “The Tower”, which Vesprille and Hindman say was inspired by the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in the early spring of 2014, is maybe the best example of this. Awash in pastel tones and reverb, it delves into what exactly it means to be cognizant of the fact that, one day, you’ll be cut off from contact and discourse for good. “Knowing that you’re not going to communicate with people anymore, knowing that you’re not going to receive the world around you,” Hindman told Stereogum in an interview in September. “What will you then receive?” It’s a terrifying existential thought to sneak past listeners who are just looking for a good time, like pureed broccoli in a batch of brownies. Vesprille and Hindman don’t mean to terrify, though; they’re merely looking to engage.
The emotional core of the album, which also features Vesprille’s vocals at their lightest and loveliest, is “Singer”, which, as she told Stereogum, is her most autobiographical song to date. A creative person’s life is riddled with second guesses and self-doubt, and Vesprille seems to be saying that standing up to naysayers, especially when they might be people you love and respect, can be just as difficult as, say, recording a debut album.
“What I want to be is the singer of a band, and [it hurts] to have people around you tell you that that’s ridiculous, or your family think you’re insane, all of the things that go along with making grand declarations that make people uncomfortable,” she told Stereogum. Pray for Rain‘s “Singer” is both vulnerable and empowering, gently triumphant without being cocky. As a declaration of Vesprille’s pride in her creative endeavors, it also doubles as a kind of capstone, a way of marking her progress thus far.
Vesprille and Hindman clearly had concrete ideas about each song’s influences and subject matter. Whether that subject matter translates or not isn’t the ultimate takeaway — early track “Palest Pearl”, for example, draws on the work of American ex-pat poet Hilda Doolittle, who lived and wrote in London during WWII. “Palest pearl, the pearl of greatest price,” Vesprille sings, another riff on the hard-won battle of making your creative dreams a reality. (“Be indigestible, hard, ungiving/ So that, living within/ You beget, self-out-of-self/ Selfless/ That pearl-of-great-price,” Doolittle’s 1944 poem “The Walls Do Not Fall” concludes.)
While some may argue that the contemporary pop music canon doesn’t need yet another coming-of-age album about the dread of mortality and the struggle of staying true to oneself in the context of your impending demise, it’s also true that artists do their best work when they’re delving into the problems that are consuming them. While the driving forces behind Pray for Rain might not be ultra-fresh, Vesprille and Hindman do a more than passable job of wrapping them in a brand new package.
Essential Tracks: “The Tower”, “Singer”, and “Palest Pearl”