Album of the Day: Pile, “A Hairshirt of Purpose”

In cities with lively scenes, one band often ends up representing a specific subgenre to both insiders and outsiders. Pile has been the source of Boston’s indie rock pride for the past decade—not unlike the way Mudhoney was the beating heart of pre-Nevermind DIY Seattle. The quartet’s more crowd-pleasing songs, like “Don’t Touch Anything” and “Baby Boy,” have become occasions for joyous basement singalongs across the country, for crowds to recognize a shared love. No longer content with this endless cycle of writing and touring, Pile’s principal songwriter Rick Maguire left the comfortable cosmopolitan environs of the East Coast last year to spend time in rural Appalachia. The result of this creative respite and reflection is A Hairshirt of Purpose, an album weighted heavily by Maguire’s bucolic surroundings and his self-imposed solitude.

Historically, Pile’s LPs have never had much of a central theme. But on Hairshirt, the thirteen tracks are connected by a clear thread of consternation. “Leaning on a Wheel” displays a prickly restlessness in its flirtation with Americana and acrimony. “So play in traffic/ Have a kid/ And may every good deed be in self-interest” is a statement charged with resentment. Leading with cutthroat strings under percussionist Kris Kuss’s simmering drumroll, “Rope’s Length” evokes an unsettling disconnect. When we reach the chorus “But I want it at rope’s length/ If I’m not being used”, the song’s protagonist is already proverbially lost at sea. Pile have always been masters of askew chord progressions, and on Hairshirt, these riffs pair with lyrical brooding to add an extra layer of tension.

The sense of chagrin that’s woven into Hairshirt goes beyond bellowing and bombast. “Making Eyes,” with its reluctant piano and lumbering tempo, contributes to the song’s theme of cloistered paranoia. As expected, Pile still manage to get in some bruisers like “Texas” that take the reins off of the rhythm section and let dual guitars tangle for some raucous jousting. Bitter sentiment and churning cadence merge on “Dogs,” a pitter-patting of tender chords steadily swelling into an orchestral thunderstorm. Mustering all his spite, Maguire finally cuts loose: “Then I pretend to sleep alone/ I’d rather on the ground than in your bed/ I’ll sleep on the lawn or stay up instead.” For a band that has been so closely tied to its homebase, A Hairshirt of Purpose is a powerful album driven by anxiety and separation.

—Matt Voracek

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