Joe Pernice says he hates his life, sings about suicide and flaming plane wrecks and sees more broken hearts than a bag of crushed Valentine's Day candy, and the funny thing is, you might not notice at first. Almost every one of his songs makes Morrissey's entire back catalog sound like nursery rhymes, almost every word from his mouth is coated with disappointment and defeat and despair, and you probably won't realize it right away. That's his secret, his trick, his gift: He takes sad songs and doesn't bother to make them better, yet he's able to fool you into believing he has. The World Won't End--Pernice's fourth album in as many years, including last year's side trips, Big Tobacco (under his own name) and a self-titled effort as Chappaquiddick Skyline--is the best example of his particular talent, full of dark/bright songs that delicately define bittersweet. Meaning: Pernice's lyrics are as cheerful as a leisurely stroll down death row (sample: "I hope I never love anybody the way we never really tried," from--haha--"Bryte Side"), but he makes sure to include a few spoonfuls of sugar to help the medicine go down. He hides his words in Trojan horses built out of the studied studio slickness of Billy Sherrill's countrypolitan George-and-Tammy productions, Burt Bacharach's relentless melodies and George Harrison's early ambition, allowing his words to sneak into listeners' heads and hearts undetected. More often than not, that's when they explode like hollow-tipped bullets.
Not that he needs any of that. Fact is, Pernice could make you overlook exactly what he's singing about even if he was performing all of these songs backed by only his guitar instead of a six-piece band and a string section. He possesses one of the most beautiful voices around, a shy whisper that's frayed at the edges, sounding as though he's falling in or out of bed, or in or out of love, or both. His voice is as fragile and perfect as a sunrise, drifting slightly above each song, reaching into every corner and every crack. And though his voice is part of what reminds you to forget what he says with it, it doesn't help Pernice all that much. "I tried to kill that feeling with a song," he sings on "Endless Supply." "Enclosed, please find the words that I sent along." Those words? "Five years and it still hurts when I hear your name/There is no meaning in my life/ There's so much meaning in the times you say goodbye." He repeats the theme one song later (and, well, on a majority of the songs on The World Won't End), when he sings in "Cronulla Breakdown," "We try so hard to make the worst of a bad situation/I try to shake you, but I don't really feel like shaking." Even when Pernice writes from someone else's point of view, only the pronouns change: All the "Working Girls" are "contemplating suicide or a graduate degree," and answering "'How's it going?' with, 'I feel sullen, I feel sullen, I feel 17.'" No one's happy in Pernice's world, except the few who expect to be unhappy, and those people are just satisfied that something went according to plan for once.
They all sound happy, however, due to Pernice's melodies and the wall of sound built by the rest of the "brothers," bassist-producer Thom Monahan, drummer Mike Belitsky, piano-keyboard player Laura Stein, guitarist Peyton Pinkerton and Joe's real brother, guitarist Bob Pernice. Every sound may be carefully orchestrated--from the skittering drum loop that lurks beneath the surface of "Bryte Side" to the cascading harmonies that wash over almost every chorus--yet it all sounds natural, logical, never overwrought or overdone. Thanks to them, a song about numb numbers in the corporate system, "Working Girls (Sunlight Shines)," should only be heard as the wind whips around your head while speeding across the sun-drenched countryside in a top-down convertible. Like Jeff Tweedy and Wilco did on 1999's Summerteeth, the Pernice Brothers wring hope from songs that seem to be completely lacking it, changing the meaning by marrying Pernice's tear-in-everyone's-beer lyrics to ba-baba-ba harmonies (such as on "7:30") and chiming guitars, sounding like an American and modern version of the Zombies. Which isn't to say there is a single backward glance on The World Won't End; everything here is looking ahead, even if Joe Pernice doesn't think there's much to look forward to. As long as he's still making records, that will never be true.
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