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Porches - "The House" | Album Review


by Dylan Pennell (@dylan_pennell)

Listening to the new Porches record I can’t help but think of “The Fall of the House of Usher,” one of Edgar Allan Poe’s most celebrated stories, and probably notably for those who recall studying it in high school, “that story about incest.” Porches’ new album The House manages to recall this gothic tale mostly in the lonely pall that pervades it and the central metaphor of the story. Poe’s tale - to put it in the simplest terms - ultimately suggests the emotional and physiological damage of a mind torn in two, albeit the house standing as a metaphor for a man’s psyche. Frankly, the divide could be read in any number of ways, the division between body and mind, between sanity and insanity, between society and solitude. Whatever is truly happening in the mind of Roderick Usher and the foundation of his house is never clearly outlined, but it might be easy to imagine that Aaron Maine imagines a similar struggle happening in his own thought’s dominion.  

Much like Poe, Maine chooses a house as the central metaphor for the story and the struggle between staying in for a night of navel-gazing and going out for a night on the town. Porches serves up a microcosm of that dichotomy in his third album The House, a record simultaneously fascinated with the implications of going in and going out, both spiritually and socially.

Toted as “a conscious effort in minimalism and honesty” and the “immediate sensations” of frontman Aaron Maine, the album not only wrestles with the raw wounds of his own internal conflicts, but also the detritus of love lost. The very same push and pull of wanting to “go out” at times seem intrinsically rooted in the desire for love and lust. Songs like “Find Me” offer corporeal delights while ruminating on the very opposite, while “Understanding” and “Anything U Want” act as fragile devotionals. And it is here that we find our Maine, the narrator, resides, deeply wounded and longing for the respite of love and the revelry of a night on the town, while still deeply invested in his own truth, even if that means shuttering the blinds or laying in a field at night, alone.  

This contrast in the narrative and song dynamics was all but handed to audiences with the release of early singles “Find Me” and “Country”; one shows Maine doubling down on his techno influences and coming up with his own update on the Mortal Kombat theme, while the other serves as a mystical ode to the Emersonian healing powers of the countryside, built upon a misty-cool pair of synthesizers and floating by in a brief beam of serenity. The pairing of these songs may have confounded some looking for a stylistic preview of the album, but it couldn’t give a more accurate portrayal: one part rubber-burning rave up and one part mild piano/synth ballads.

Maybe then, Porches’ latest effort is the response of an artist in the midst of unprecedented exposure, opting to “stay in” with his latest effort. Rather than continuing to hone his pop songcraft and reaching farther into the world of indie-stardom. Regardless of how it’s framed, it’s obvious that, with few exceptions, Maine has started to consider his music in the micro. Whereas Pool seemed to introduce a previously unheard of rhythmic and melodic funk-rigidity, amidst great songwriting, The House truly seems enveloped in the fleeting moments of chaos and beauty. The songs in miniature feel unfinished at first, but multiple listens reward with undeniable melodies and earnestness, making the polarity of song dynamics more pleasurable with every listen.

Serving as a mission statement for the album “Leave the House,” opens up with the precarious confusion of the narrator, unable to decide whether to go out, to stay in, and ultimately, willing to admit that he’s not much of a partner at all. The music itself offers a version of the same fist-pumping techno of second single “Find Me,” but the instrumental is noticeably off-kilter, as is the vocal performance. However, it’s a testament to Maine’s artistic prowess and level of control that this precarious start feels purposeful, much like the protagonist of the album, we too should feel the indecisiveness and uncertainty on display here. Subsequently, “Find Me” sees the narrator having made a decision, for better or worse. The club-ready track - some may even call it a “banger” - never betrays the sulk-pop roots of Porches’ last few years of recorded output, but also manages to find the euphoric release that Maine’s music has always pleaded for. Despite what the music suggests, the track finds the narrator at his most agoraphobic, wishing to stay in, sink into himself, and do whatever it takes to not let “it” find him. Whether the “it” is heartbreak or anxiety, loneliness acts as a vessel for the listener to empathize, making it even more profound when Maine indignantly proclaims “watch me go,” an act of self-defiance in the face of his own hermetic instincts.

While the album seems intrinsically tied to some type of broken relationship with a lover, what shines here is Maine’s fractured relationship with himself as he openly struggles with notions of identity eventually admitting “Most of the time I have no idea who I see in the mirror” on highlight “By My Side.” Between “Find Me,” “Now the Water,” “Anymore,” and “Wobble,” his struggle with his own emotions becomes nearly unbearable and unresolvable as guitars stutter and choke come the voiceless conclusion of the latter.  

At times feeling as fraught with grief as Poe’s own Roderick Usher and feeling as divided as that characters own fractured psyche, Maine never forgets to offer songs that are elevating despite their deeply conflicted and mournful nature. While the content of “Find Me” is grounding, it’s easy to get completely lost in the chorus’ ecstatic keyboard punches. “Now the Water” similarly manages to not get bogged down in the narrator’s ponderous aquatic fascinations with the loveliest chorus on the record. “Ono” follows a similar formula in presenting what could read as trite - “Oh no” is the entire chorus of the song - but is buoyed by a force and sincerity which imbues it with the emotional wallop of a ton of bricks. It’s worth noting that the songs here, even the exercises in brevity, are the strongest of Maine’s career. Though not nearly as well-formed or as eager to please as Pool’s, the level of emotional depth and the ability of these melodies to grow upon each listen, lends it Porches’ most lasting pleasures.

This talk of depth and conflict and “best” all really leads us to “Country,” a song that has thrived in the months since it’s release. The song stands firmly in line with the less developed and simpler songs on the record, but somehow it maintains the emotional core of the entire album. Narratively speaking, our subject has made a decision and goes out into the world, but rather than fleeing the house into the warm confines of society, he escapes his bleak indecisiveness by taking a ride into the country. Recalling the staid and serene bliss of R.W. Emerson, Maine leaves his haunt and the ghosts that keep him there, instead choosing to regale the joys of space and clarity. It feels like a break from the claustrophobia of the rest of the record, and rightfully so, as we breathe in the music equivalent of a cool mountain breeze simultaneously shaking us to the core and reinvigorating our bodies and minds.

And so it goes that for all the talk of conflict, claustrophobia, and Poe-like despair, the house never falls. The ultimate effect of the record is not unlike “Country” or even the water of which Maine speaks so highly and frequently; purifying and cooling. As Maine collects his thoughts and lays them out over the course of the album, sum of these anxieties is never bewildering or overwhelming sadness, but of great relief, an artist having exercised his demons and come away feeling confident and in control.