[10 June 2014]
“I think you had me confused with a man who lost his mind.” sings Alec Ounsworth on first song of his new record, Only Run. This is certainly a fair assessment of where the press and listening public categorized the enigmatic singer of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah over the near decade since a brilliant self-titled debut. Sophomore record Some Loud Thunder proved challenging if, at times, unlistenable, and third record, Hysterical, was and wasn’t what the title suggested. Throw in a bizarre 2009 solo effort from Ounsworth, the departure of a few band members from CYHSY and the general malaise attendant to being a band once hailed as the advance guard now fallen on hard times, and it was fair for the singer to suspect that we might have written him off. Only Run, both in form and function, is CYHSY‘s return to relevance, excellence even, and one of the best independent rock records of 2014.
As if referencing his band’s complex history in the genre of indie rock, Ounsworth invited the National‘s singer, Matt Berninger, to perform guest vocals on lead single, “Coming Down”. The two frontmen have been friends since the legendary 2005 tour where CYHSY often opened for the National, and in some cases, whole crowds of buzz-drunk music consumers left before the the second band took the stage. How many music fans out there carry the regret of having walked out of a National club show in 2005? Pitchfork’s review of the two bands’ 2005 set in Philadelphia described CYHSY as “enjoying immense indie fueled hype” and the National as a band “looking for their due”. Not lost on anyone, least of all Ounsworth, is the cruel reverse trajectory of the two bands since then. Clap Your Hands returns to New York this summer, playing the 600-person Music Hall of Williambsurg, the same season in which the National will get thousands to pay $50 a ticket for an “intimate” yuppie-cheese-plate show in Prospect Park. True, it’s smaller than the basketball arena in Brooklyn where the National played last June after their most recent LP went to number one on Billboard. Ounsworth’s Hysterical, on the other hand, didn’t chart in the US.
So perhaps Ounsworth called in a favor from Berninger, the patronage relationship flipped, CYHSY now reaping some much needed buzz from the National frontman. One of Only Run‘s best moments is the duet between the two singers on “Coming Down”, Ounsworth literally on top of Berninger by an octave, musically eclipsing the pretty if lachrymose recent work from the National, and slamming through the song’s best lyric, “You carry the weight of the world inside your mouth.” When it comes to modern indie rock, there aren’t two better guys to understand and master the deftness, sadness and power of a line like this. The National made Berninger independently wealthy, but he hasn’t written anything with the edge or energy of “Coming Down” since songs like “Abel” and “Mr. November” in 2005. It’s worth noting those are songs that didn’t make the band their money. They are songs that soundtracked the half-crowds the National saw after Clap Your Hands finished their sold out sets on that ‘05 tour. “Coming Down” isn’t Ounsworth’s “Fake Empire”, but it feels like a moral victory of sorts, and even Berninger sounds invigorated in seeking hard edges again.
Above all else, Only Run feels full of this type of energy, the desperation and freedom of needing to prove yourself again. The album’s opening track, “As Always”, stalks upward on a series of overlapping guitar obligatos, a final expansive and ambitious symphony. The band deploys the snare drum throughout the record as an alarm: from the double-taps on “Coming Down”, the metronomic energy of “Only Run” or to announce the final movements of “Blameless”, “Little Moments” and “Beyond Illusion”. It’s a startling device, as if Ounsworth won’t allow the listener to slip into casual listening, demanding attention. The urgency isn’t mistaken as the singer moans, “There are no little moments, only wasted time” on the synth-heavy, “Little Moments”. Cribbing bits of the Wolf Parade catalog here, Ounsworth finds himself in a sea of synths, always something of a hallmark of CYHSY but emphasized with renewed vigor and intention. “Beyond Illusion” is Ounsworth’s stab at “Idioteque”, a drum-loop and synth-driven meditation that sits right between Radiohead and the Postal Service (crueler treatment argues Owl City) on its influence hierarchy, a surprisingly pleasant combination. Even on the more plaintive songs, it sounds like Ounsworth doesn’t have a second to waste, even the negative space announcing the next movement, a transition, a singer finally free from our perceptions and hopelessly tied to them.
“Impossible Request” reveals the final contradiction that drives the excellence of Only Run. Ounsworth both does and doesn’t care what any of us think of him and his record. Either musing on a broken relationship, his career or both, he sings, “It was a stranger who put me here, and in a way I’m at the mercy of a stranger again to take me away.” How bizarre that people you never meet decide the critical and financial future of your art. Or how appropriate. Berninger or Ounsworth, you decide. The song’s final movement, one of the record’s most melodic, finds Ounsworth singing, “Please don’t ask me where I’m going, I’ll tell you again, I never know.” It isn’t quite his Huck Finn, light-out-for-the-territories moment, but it does represent a singer constrained by and free from us in the same instant. We abstract him with our attention or lack thereof. He could never have predicted the last ten years, neither could the people who fought to get to his show and left before the National played—likely some of the same people who now fight for National tickets and won’t see CYHSY or buy a copy of Only Run. The artist represented himself as an over-sized shadow on the album cover for a reason.
Ounsworth apparently liked “Impossible Request” so much, he placed an alternative version as the album’s last “bonus” track. It’s a stripped down, drum-loop take on the original, but more importantly, on a straight listen through the record, you hear “Impossible Request” twice in the final three songs. You can try to forget me, Ounsworth suggests at the end, but please don’t forget this: we never know where we might be in 10 years’ time, “please don’t ask me where I’m going.” Many of us will be trying to recapture our best work in a decade, our once brilliant, youthful past selves, but, unlike Ounsworth, few of us will be able to do it.