Secret Crushes Never Sounded So Good

Smart, poppy love songs.

Be careful when you listen to Sarge's new album, The Glass Intact, because there's a good chance it will blow right by you. The music is so compulsively listenable, the lyrics so matter-of-fact, that it's easy to miss the raw emotions just beneath the surface.

Hailing from Champaign, Ill., Sarge have forged a tough, layered pop sound fueled by a punk engine. The Glass Intact makes good on all the promises made by 1996's Charcoal, their bleak and stirring debut. The sound is bigger, more fleshed-out and dynamic. The hooks are sharper and they sink deeper. The band's musical abilities have grown without sacrificing any immediacy.

Elizabeth Elmore's singing holds the album together. Her lyrics recount horrible events, destructive urges, secret crushes. But her beautiful voice never once cracks or strains no matter what she's singing. The distance this creates allows you room to listen, to sort through the conflicted emotions. The bitterness and disgust that Elmore swallows give her voice a hard edge. And it's her voice that's kept me playing the album again and again these past weeks.

In "Beguiling," Elmore effortlessly navigates lines like "All these nuanced conversations that cried for quiet consolations were affectations of affection that stemmed from suggestive rejections," so that they sound inevitable instead of merely clever. In "A Torch," it's the way she sings "She took this as sign that life was gonna be like this, they get their way and you watch it" that adds an extra sting to the words, a bitterness that sounds more real for being wrapped in a pretty voice.

Like any good pop album, The Glass Intact is mostly love songs. But these love songs are about the moment where things either click or break apart, or, in some cases, where everything is way past repair. Elmore never shies away from awkward emotions, blunt confessions or violent scenarios. In "Homewrecker," she sings "Fist after fist I stuck around silent I watched you hit the ground." And that's the chorus. But Sarge never milk these moments for drama. They play them as pop songs, always keeping a tight grip on the melody. Everything may be fucked, but it's not the end of the world. What the songs lose in visceral impact, they often gain in their implacability, a steady gaze in the face of pain that becomes unsettling.

The lyrics are writerly but Sarge's music is all non-stop momentum, and the words keep up best they can. While the taut rhythm section of bassist Rachel Switzky and drummer Chad Romanski keep everything in motion, Elmore's guitar tries to trip them up. Her angular riffs and sheets of noise leap out unexpectedly, to the point where the songs threaten to collapse or explode at any moment. Little shifts keep the music on its toes. A piano opens up the hushed ballad "Half As Far." A breakneck run to the second verse of "I Took You Driving" lights a fire under the song's wary lust. You never know what lurks behind the next corner.

On first listen, Sarge might sound like typical indie-rock fare from, say, 1993: their guitar-bass-drum line-up a bit out of step with today's futurist soundscapes. But then you realize what you're hearing is more special. The Glass Intact is the sound of a group finding its full voice and beginning to use it. Ultimately it sounds fresh, the way it always does when someone gets it exactly right.

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