Empty Country
Empty Country


4.7
superb

Review

by Rowan5215 STAFF
March 24th, 2020 | 48 replies


Release Date: 03/20/2020 | Tracklist

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.



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user ratings (35)
3.8
excellent

Comments:Add a Comment 
Rowan5215
Staff Reviewer
March 24th 2020


43367 Comments

Album Rating: 4.7

currently my AOTY by a country mile, find it here: https://emptycountry.bandcamp.com/album/empty-country



"Ultrasound" if you still need that little bit of convincing: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6IvWwRmkzHQ

MarsKid
Contributing Reviewer
March 24th 2020


10467 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5

Album of the year sounds tantalizing, but we've got eight more months to go, and this third one ain't quite done yet. You never knoooooow



That being said, you've done a lot of justice to this release. Sounds very personal and emotional, which is all a good sign to me. I'm entirely divorced from this guy's work though, so I don't know if this is an 'appropriate' starting point. I'm definitely interested in an emotive slow-burner.

Digging: Omega Infinity - Solar Spectre

Rowan5215
Staff Reviewer
March 24th 2020


43367 Comments

Album Rating: 4.7

I did say currently my AOTY to be fair hahah



thanks Mars. everything he's done is great, I'd either start with this or LOSE, both are incredible

MarsKid
Contributing Reviewer
March 24th 2020


10467 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5

Consider it bookmarked

klap
Staff Reviewer
March 24th 2020


12258 Comments


mmmmm that's the stuff

Digging: Magdalena Bay - A Little Rhythm and a Wicked Feeling

JesperL
March 24th 2020


530 Comments


goddamn that opening track is unreal. fantastic review, excited to dive into this some more once i stop replaying marian haha

juiceviaorange
March 24th 2020


777 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5 | Sound Off

Yeah, this album is killer. I loved all of Cymbals Eat Guitars' work and this stands as tall as any of it.

Digging: Empty Country - Empty Country

juiceviaorange
March 24th 2020


777 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5 | Sound Off

Yeah, this album is killer. I loved all of Cymbals Eat Guitars' work and this stands as tall as any of it.

Slex
Contributing Reviewer
March 24th 2020


9416 Comments


Oh my god I am so so so excited for this

Digging: The Weeknd - After Hours

Rowan5215
Staff Reviewer
March 25th 2020


43367 Comments

Album Rating: 4.7

yeah Jesper, Marian is really something else. never thought I'd be out here wailing along to a catchy chorus with the words "she was a blue baby, hole in her heart" but goddamn I am

tom79
March 25th 2020


3714 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

Caught my attention with the Purple Mountains lyric before I even knew this was the new project of the CEG frontman. I need to hear this.

Rowan5215
Staff Reviewer
March 25th 2020


43367 Comments

Album Rating: 4.7

https://www.billboard.com/articles/columns/rock/8541174/cymbals-eat-guitars-breakup-empty-country-interview



pretty cool writeup that goes into why Cymbals broke up and how this project came about. also how Joe met David Berman which is a beautiful little thing

BlushfulHippocrene
Staff Reviewer
March 25th 2020


3192 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5

This is a really lovely review. Can't wait to dig into this some more.

Lucman
March 25th 2020


3915 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5

I'm a simple man. I see The Meadowlands as a rec then I will check.

Digging: Dua Lipa - Future Nostalgia

Kiran
Emeritus
March 25th 2020


6080 Comments


damn. i haven't been super tuned in for a while but i didn't even know cymbals eat guitars broke up : (

neekafat
Contributing Reviewer
March 25th 2020


17996 Comments


hmmmmmm seems interesting

Rowan5215
Staff Reviewer
March 25th 2020


43367 Comments

Album Rating: 4.7

@Kiran they didn't even make a big deal about it, no-one in the audience knew it was their last show when they were playing it. think they just put it in their twitter bio or something lmao. this album is more than compensation tho

verdant
Staff Reviewer
March 25th 2020


2430 Comments


this is kinda brilliant row

it's just as much as listener guide as a review, i think, in that it situates the album within the lore of d'agostino's career and indie rock at large. listening to the album now i think i'm able to appreciate the references and stylistic choices much more because of it. an impressive balance of imagery and analysis -- an encomium that's just the right level of effusive

love u dawg

Rowan5215
Staff Reviewer
March 25th 2020


43367 Comments

Album Rating: 4.7

ah thanks dawg ppreciate it. there's no way to talk about this album without talking about all the branches of indie that had to happen to get us to this point lol. it's uniquely situated both in the new scene and tied to the old at the same time (D'Agostino feature on new Wrens pls)

anatelier
March 25th 2020


3151 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

I've always considered Why There Are Mountains to be a quintessential indie rock album tbh

Digging: Honey Harper - Starmaker



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