[26 August 2014]
PopMatters Music Editor - Canada
The third album by New York indie rockers Cymbals Eat Guitars has a very a propos title. Lose is about losing the things closest to you, even your friends. Frontman Joseph D’Agostino wrote the album in response to the death of his best friend and musical collaborator Benjamin High seven years ago, at the start of Cymbal Eat Guitars’ recording career. And yet, this is less a dirge than an Irish Wake, something that may earn comparisons to Arcade Fire’s Funeral for all of its sense of hopefulness in the face of despair. “I think this one is obviously more accessible than Why There Are Mountains or Lenses Alien,” says D’Agostino, referring to the band’s previous albums. “The first two had a lot more stop and start. This one has a ton of momentum. It’s got fluidity and grace. I think I gave the lyrics more room to breathe, so you can kind of follow what’s going on.” Indeed, there is a great deal of propulsion and glee to be found on Lose, despite the morbid subject matter. There’s a sense of nostalgia, of things past, and you can look no further than the first track, “Jackson”, which opens with glorious Rhodes piano before raging into a delirious rocker that plants itself directly into your cranium.
Lose looks in the rearview mirror, particularly through D’Agostino’s vocal delivery. Sometimes he sounds a little like Joe Strummer. Sometimes he sounds like Shane MacGowan. And the album is chock full of Eastern seaboard references, from “We’re riding through Jackson Pines / Towards Six Flags to wait in lines” to nods to AWOL indie rockers the Wrens. Cape May and Mystic Island are both mentioned in “Place Names”, and “XR” references Vintage Vinyl, which is a Fords, New Jersey-based record store. Coney Island also looms in “LifeNet”. Geography plays an important role in Lose, becoming something of a map of the human condition and memory. Pop culture also sort of rears its head here and there: There’s a namecheck of Bowie on Soul Train and, I had to chuckle a bit at this, even a horrific mention of Faces of Death.
However, as much as Lose has one foot in the past, it also has another in the present. “Warning” churns with vitriol and rage, “XR” is a propulsive rocker led by a hyperactive harmonica, and “Child Bride” is a lovely acoustic ballad with horrific imagery: “Child bride, you were my best friend / Until my dad slapped the living shit out of you”. The eight-minute “Laramie” is epic in scope, sounding a little like MGMT filtered through a soulful lens, before lurching into a full-on chug. “Chambers” feels ripped straight out of ‘80s rock, meanwhile. It’s hard to pinpoint a singular song that sticks out – everything to be found on Lose is good to great, and while the transition from “Warning” to “XR” is a bit jarring, this disc feels like an album in an era where the single is king.
In fact, Lose is an indie rock homage to ol’ fashioned rock and/or roll: “Wanna wake up wanting to listen to records / But those old feelings elude me / I raise a toast to the rock n’ roll ghost,” sings D’Agostino at one point. The spirit of indie rock emerges here, as much as the album is tinged with sadness. The opening section of “Place Names” is particularly mournful, with swirling keyboards and a solitary guitar making D’Agostino’s lyrics feel naked and vulnerable – but, just when you think things are going to get too melodramatic, the rest of the band kicks in and the song turns into a blistering mid-tempo rocker. If there’s a moment that’s truly poignant outside of the lilting “Child Bride”, it would have to be album closer “2 Hip Soul”, which bristles with regret and drips with a mournful quality, making it the most overtly sorrowful moment on the record. “We had to find a new place to dream,” mourns D’Agostino on the track, before some Neil Young-like fiery guitar work rises to the surface. Ultimately, “2 Hip Soul” rises triumphantly like a phoenix from the ashes, and finishes the record on a slow burn.
Lose, despite its detours in sound, is remarkably cohesive and whole. It’s a real gift, that the band could tackle tragedy without making it sound saccharine, but also without making it sound too glib. Cymbals Eat Guitars pull off a deft highwire act, bringing something both personal and universal to the fore. “These songs are a joy to play, and hopefully they will be a joy to listen to,” says D’Agostino. “I know I still get chills from every song on this record, so that has to mean something. You have to trust that feeling.” Indeed, Lose is an album that may give the listeners the chills, from the deft songwriting to the confessional lyrics. Sometimes, D’Agostino’s vocals and wails are a little too tad buried in the mix, when they should be more front and centre, but that’s more of a minor quibble than anything else.
This is an album you’ll want to play loud anyway, and just soak and bask in the overall vibes that this record provides. You’ll want to hear this over and over again, and you will not tire or get sick of this album on multiple replays – in fact, it may get even stronger which each and every progressive pass through it, as it opens up and reveals itself. This is a thoughtful album that just so happens to rock out in a similar wild abandon to Cloud Nothings. However, there are more nooks and crannies to get lost in here. Simply put, this is a record that should christen Cymbals Eat Guitars as a force to be reckoned with. All I can really say is, for its themes of loss and longing, its wide-eyed sense of wistfulness, for all of its hopefulness in misfortune, Lose ends up being a win. And a major one at that.