Empty Country
Empty Country II


5.0
classic

Review

by Rowan5215 STAFF
November 4th, 2023 | 106 replies


Release Date: 11/03/2023 | Tracklist

Review Summary: all the tired horses in the sun / how'm I s'posed to get any riding done?

Joseph D'Agostino's songs play like smoke travels upwards in the wind: his blackly comic tales of the heartbreak and despair that lurks on the edge of America(na) steadfastly refuse to travel along straight lines. He winds in and out of character voices like a seasoned poet, spiraling through vortices where blue-eyed serial killers and precognitive Virginia teens rub shoulders with stories so raw they could only be ripped from real life. Somewhere inbetween David Berman's wicked wit, the unhinged falsetto yowls of Modest Mouse's Isaac Brock and a sensibility for hooks which suggests years of power pop and indie absorbed via osmosis, D'Agostino somehow remains a singular voice in the scene, a deeply human songwriter whose razor-sharp character portraits would feel equally at home in a short story anthology as in his consistent stream of superb music under any given name.

On Empty Country II, D'Agostino has finally written something like a show bible, one which pulls together all the strands and signifiers of his various eras. It's an undertaking extensive enough that the album comes with an hourlong accompanying narration, "Basilisk", delivered in a truly unsettling pitch shifted mumble like David Bowie's "Baby Grace (A Horrid Cassette)". In fact, replace the industrial trappings of Outside with an art-damaged alt-country aesthetic, like some lost curio you might dig up in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre horrorhouse or the Twin Peaks guitar shop Pearl describes in "Basilisk", and you might start to get at how Empty Country II sounds. The nine-song tracklist and return of John Agnello on production bring to mind Cymbals Eat Guitars' high watermark LOSE, but there's a rawer edge and predilection towards sprawl here that recalls Why There Are Mountains. Songs unravel and decay over the course of several minutes, shifting through time signatures like old gears, a heavenly chorus emerging through the chaos and then just as quickly subsiding again - safe to say, not the most immediate or comfortable of listens.

It's that very inaccessibility which marks this sophomore release as something more than just Part 2 to the humbly released but wonderful Empty Country debut. There are as many differences between the two as similarities: for every direct line, like "Pearl" being the daughter of the 'blue baby' named in "Marian" or "Bootsie" springing wholesale from one line in the same song, there's a sharp divergence point like the Berman tribute "David". The song struggles with the weight of acting as a eulogy for one of the greatest writers of his age while offering thoughtful reflection on the act of songwriting itself, D'Agostino pondering the creation of his 'psychedelic soap operas' while calling back to Berman's phenomenal 'Self-Portrait at 28'. You have "Dustine", which I'm pretty sure takes time out of deep existential musings to reference fuckin' Hellraiser, back-to-back with the Trail of Dead-esque punk ripper "Syd", and a distorted harmonica breakdown on the otherwise Elliott Smith-esque "FLA" which sounds like absolutely nothing I've ever heard before. "Bootsie" reveals the plague that takes Marian's "pretty friends" as the AIDS epidemic, burning through 80s New York and devastating a queer community, giving way to a chorus which flips Talking Heads' "Heaven" on its head for the album's most unexpectedly euphoric moment. Both albums end from the perspective of a convicted killer, but the labyrinthine "Cool S" is worlds apart from the plaintive beauty of "Swim", this closer a downright disturbing peek into psychosis that ends with a line that somehow perfectly sums up both the murder and the entire opioid-ravaged wasteland the album illustrates: "I guess it was just one of those things".

Yet the biggest difference between the two may be the clear change in authorial voice. The largely male protagonists of the debut have been supplanted by voices even more marginalised than the desperate, lonely characters of Empty Country. This was a change hinted at on the between-albums trans anthem "Andi", which presumably was something of a genesis point for Empty Country II given its appearance towards the end of "Basilisk", here fully realised. From Marian at 13 to her daughter Pearl at 17, both damaged by their inherited visions but finding community in queer love, the album wanders to Pearl's ex-girlfriend Syd, and even a potential future descendant in "Lamb", shredding her dirtbike through a post-apocalyptic 2039 like some cyberpunk Bob Dylan (how'm I s'posed to get any riding done?). It's there down to the song titles, almost all of which are names and nicknames of people, a far cry from the place names which dominated the titles in Cymbals Eat Guitars. And where that project became more stripped-down and glossier with every release, Empty Country is seemingly on the reverse course of that arc - it's like their debut was the explosion and II is the aftermath, a fucked-up star going supernova.

When I reviewed Empty Country, I was effusive in my praise for D'Agostino's new project and rightfully gushing over its crown jewel "Marian", but I had no clue just how important the album would become to me in the years since. It feels like life just split in half sometime around 2020, because of the pandemic or adulthood really getting its claws in or a million other stupid reasons, and in that terrifying yawning gulf between the two, one of the few pieces of driftwood I had to cling to was that strangely moving album. Maybe things are clearer, if no less terrifying on the other side, but it still feels to me like we're all telling stories in the dark, hoping the words will keep us warm. If that's the case, I've got nine more to tell you, and they're all burning hotter than the goddamn sun.



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user ratings (52)
3.8
excellent

Comments:Add a Comment 
Rowan5215
Staff Reviewer
November 4th 2023


47639 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0

boom baby we're off



stream: https://emptycountry.bandcamp.com/album/empty-country-ii-2



Basilisk: https://emptycountry.bandcamp.com/album/basilisk-or-pearl-practices-guitar-and-hallucinates-the-future



Berman poem: https://poets.org/poem/self-portrait-28



+ thanks to johnny for throwing a lifeline lol. something extra cool with this coming soon to a sputnik near you

Slex
November 4th 2023


16594 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

Hmmm



God this review whoops fuckin ass tho

Scoot
November 4th 2023


22205 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

joe is probably the most famous musician that has posted here

Slex
November 4th 2023


16594 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

Didnt Thomas Erak post here before? Joe is better obviously but I dunno about more famous

Rowan5215
Staff Reviewer
November 4th 2023


47639 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0

what about the dude from Kayo Dot or w/e

DoofDoof
November 4th 2023


15093 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

Good album, ‘David’ is incredible

nightbringer
November 4th 2023


2725 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

Excellent review, excellent album.

Sowing
Moderator
November 4th 2023


43955 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

My first spin impressed me and I'm excited to see how it'll grow. I felt like the album was just a snowball of greatness and by the end I was completely hooked. Amazing writing as usual, it's been really nice getting more reviews from you lately.

AsleepInTheBack
Staff Reviewer
November 4th 2023


10209 Comments


Least convincing retirement since Sowing’s. pos.

onionbubs
November 4th 2023


21054 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0

fuckin incredible review brother



pretty new to joe's work but after rinsing the debut and ceg's lose all week i am fully along for the ride, which timed out well bc somehow i think this is even better than those

Sunnyvale
Staff Reviewer
November 4th 2023


5903 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

Man, this review is insanely good.



Gave this a first listen yesterday, not sure how I feel about it yet.

JohnnyoftheWell
Staff Reviewer
November 4th 2023


60476 Comments


oh yessss, *this* version is the fucking money - ace write

Jash
November 4th 2023


4960 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

One of the best reviews I’ve seen on here, fantastic stuff man. Really excited to check this out

Rowan5215
Staff Reviewer
November 4th 2023


47639 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0

which sowing retirement are we talking? winky face emoji



tyvm all. and bubs always a pleasure to see you jammin the good shit, can see you loving Mountains too





YoYoMancuso
Staff Reviewer
November 4th 2023


18867 Comments


looks like i'll be checking this. great review hope you're enjoying "retirement"

Sowing
Moderator
November 4th 2023


43955 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

For a while, I'd get this itch every 3-4 years to retire as if walking away from this place would feel summative and triumphant, but every time I just ended up immediately coming back and going on a reviewing tear. Now I've just accepted that I'm going to draw my last breath in this life deleting a comment from Colton25,972 still without an avatar.

DoofDoof
November 4th 2023


15093 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

'my last breath in this life deleting a comment from Colton25,972'



a life well lived

Odal
Staff Reviewer
November 4th 2023


2085 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0

What an incredibly beautiful review that sums up my thoughts perfectly. One of my favorite things I've read on this site in a hot minute. Brilliant job, Rowan.





Specifically how unintentionally important of a landmark the first EC album was to with the whirlwind panic that was 2020. Joe's music has always been something I've clinged to, and I maintain that Pretty Years just may be the most underappreciated album of all time.



It kind of took me a while to realize how sticky his music has been to me -it wasn't until the announcement of CEG being dissolved simultaneously with the birth of Empty Country that it really became crystal clear. His lyricism and knack for melodies is truly haunting in a way that few other artists have matched for me. I don't want to say that he keeps topping himself, because everything he's had a hand in is special in its own way, but I am routinely impressed at how he continues to challenge and interrogate. It's easy for me to slap a 5 on this and just know that in time these songs will grow and ache with the rest of his tales. What a special talent and voice.



Joe, if you ever read this thread like you read the first one, I will echo my thoughts that I said then: Thank you for this magical music.

Scoot
November 4th 2023


22205 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

this is so fucking good



joe's voice is unmistakable

Sunnyvale
Staff Reviewer
November 4th 2023


5903 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

Yeah Odal, I think we've discussed this before, but Pretty Years is so good - definitely my favorite thing from either Empty Country or Cymbals Eat Guitars, although I've never quite got into either as much as most.



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