Written by Zac Djamoos
It seemed like Pale Lungs might never come. Tennessee’s Pale Lungs went quiet shortly after the release of their excellent Grow Towards the Sun EP in 2018. And, in a way, they never really came back–the Pale Lungs on display on their debut LP is more introspective, more ambitious, and world-wearier. The one-off singles they released in 2020, “Right Where You Left Me” and “Corners,” effectively foreshadowed this change, introducing slowcore and alt-country respectively, into the band’s established alternative rock framework. It’s clear now that those songs bridge the band’s previous material with the warmer tones they employ on Pale Lungs.
After the introductory “Wind at Your Back,” the previously released “Hum” displays Pale Lungs’ newfound versatility, blending spacious alt-country elements with driving alternative rock. It’s a new sound for the band, but it feels seamless and organic. “Landscape” operates within the same light-heavy dichotomy as “Hum,” but pushes both ends even further. When it’s heavy, it’s the heaviest song on the record: when it’s light, it’s barely more than ambient folk. It comes off like modern-day Manchester Orchestra rewriting “Pride.” And closer “Note to a Former Self” takes off in its second half, layering pulverizing riffs atop each other until it sounds like the whole world is getting swallowed by feedback.
These songs, though, are more exception than rule on Pale Lungs, which is a fair bit more downbeat affair than either of their EPs. Moments on the record get so soft that they occasionally border on the rootsy slowcore of Spokane or Ida, like the first half of “Former Self” and “Bend.” Then there’s “Disappear,” a folksier take on Pedro the Lion’s post-hiatus autobiographical indie rock. That band is an easy touchstone for much of Pale Lungs, too, given the way the plain-spoken vocals often recall David Bazan’s unaffected delivery. When they fully commit to the country stylings, like on “Until the Next One” and “Burning Time,” the results are wonderful. It’s no easy feat for a band whose most popular song could’ve easily been a Citizen track to pivot to such a patient, pastoral sound, but Pale Lungs makes it feel perfectly natural. It calls to mind the similar jump their contemporaries in Nonfiction made when they ditched grunge-inflected alt-rock for Appalachian bar rock in 2021.
It is genuinely impressive that the lead single “Favorite Memory,” the song most clearly rooted in Pale Lungs’ previous material, is easily the weakest song on the record. There’s a confidence on display on the other, slower tracks that never came through on Grow Toward the Sun or Strawberry; a song like “What Keeps You Here” has a self-assuredness to it in that Pale Lungs know now that they don’t need a distorted riff to take the song to a new level. It can breathe and grow on its own and be what it needs to be, and a great song will still be a great song.
Zac Djamoos is an editor at The Alternative, and his writing has appeared in Merry-Go-Round Magazine, AbsolutePunk, Funeral Sounds, and more.