Review Summary: "I spent a decade playin' chicken with oblivion".
A question before I start: do you buy into the mythos of Joseph D'Agostino? The relentlessly self-critical singer would probably find the term hilarious, and yet: listeners who stuck with Cymbals Eat Guitars past their phase of Pitchfork-hype, and thus into their best work, cling to Joe's every word like gospel. To be fair, they kind of are. The moment when D'Agostino's dense, philosophical, labyrinthine world finally clicks is, I imagine, pretty close to finding religion. Shafts of light pierce through the band's spiralling walls of sound and you find yourself scrambling for more jokes, more unvarnished brutal honesty, more maps and legends to the strange, hilarious, heartbreaking interior of D'Agostino's life. Since we lost David Berman, he has been absolutely unmatched.
So if you're already a convert, Empty Country
will pretty much be gravy: more incredible lyrics from indie's best, set to a slightly more restrained country-tinged variation of his previous work. It might take some patience if you're new here. This is absolutely an album to sit down with accompanied by the lyrics: of all his ways around a witty punchline or a hook, D'Agostino's real skill is the ability to bring any number of characters and stories to life. The details are so completely lived-in, you have to wonder if they're really Joe in another branch of that multiverse he often pondered in Cymbals Eat Guitars – from "Swim"'s 22-year-old "blue-eyed sociopath" sporting a tattoo of a plane hitting the Twin Towers, to "Becca" selling faulty paper glasses during an eclipse which blind people, all so they "will hear the ocean".
Then there's the details that feel uncomfortably lived-in because they really are. First single "Ultrasound", which should deservedly have been hailed as one of the finest of 2019, outlines a painful five days Joe and his wife Rachel Browne spent waiting for a potentially deadly test result. Undoubtedly the most LOSE
-esque track with its squalls of feedback noise and shout-along chorus about a subject no one ever wants to think about, the blast of pure adrenaline from lines like "Body horror/Pace the hall/Waiting for the morning call/We tried to sleep/Weʼre spinning 'round/A shadow on the ultrasound" is matched only by the song's oddly touching and simple conclusion: "Realised/The million things that all went right/To lead me here, we're side by side/Let's leave this house, let's take a ride". It's a lovely sentiment from a dark place, a contrast that is the album's bread and butter from the opening moments of "Marian", named after D'Agostino's deceased grandmother but seemingly about a child who came two months early with "a hole in her heart". Thrumming with barely contained feedback and a backing vocal of "hole in her heart" repeated until it starts to sound like a bitterly ironic Hallelujah, the song still finds a ray of light in a truly stunning final image: "I climb up/Take my blade/Start carving the name of my blue baby".
Longtime fans might feel cheated that this early burst of energy quickly gives way to a very different kind of album. However the tracklist of Empty Country
is magnificently paced for tension-and-release, building to "Ultrasound" only to flicker into a quieter run that is not a fraction less gripping. The country-tinged "Untitled" paints a delicate scene only to tear it down with a hair-raising reminder of mortality - "it'll strike you deaf dumb and blind, every lifer's life ends sometime" - while counterpart "Emerald" imparts a unique travelogue-style view of desolate Americana from one of its most darkly observational voices. Bookended by these is "Chance", an honest-to-god Beach Boys homage which applies delicate three-part harmony, shimmering piano and spoken word samples to D'Agostino's naked voice and emerges a gorgeous career highlight. The unnerving "Becca" hides its horror-movie denoument behind an upbeat backing, while "Southern Cloud" provides another quick callback to D'Agostino's past, ensuring the album never slows into a mid-tempo slouch.
Even with all of "Chance"'s production trickery, or cello, violins and viola adding sweetness to the likes of "Clearing" and "Swim", there is never a sense of sound being prioritised over songwriting. In fact D'Agostino's voice has never been stronger, in both the literal and emotional sense. He sounds almost reborn after a decade with Cymbals Eat Guitars, one which by his own account was shot through with alcoholism, self-doubt and nights coming face to face with oblivion. With an empathetic streak as gutting as Elliott Smith's and a self-effacing wit as sharp as Charles Bissell's (the elusive Wrens frontman even guests on "Ultrasound"; it's like if Arcade Fire grabbing David Bowie for that one song was good) D'Agostino remains one of music's most enigmatic yet intensely relatable figures. A voice like a car engine cutting in and out and the discursive, layered nature of his songwriting ensures the full impact of Empty Country
won't land for several listens. This, if anything, is just another notch on its list of strengths. We're all stuck inside, with our interior lives magnified around us more and more every day, for the foreseeable future. What a blessing to have such a beguiling, wonderful roadmap to wander along as the one Empty Country
presents us with.