On a recent episode of Celebration Rock with Steven Hyden, Joseph D’Agostino, lead singer, guitarist, and lyricist of Cymbals Eat Guitars, asserted that asking people to listen to his songs feels very entitled. The self-conscious sensitivity that D’Agostino displayed on that podcast is also evinced through the band’s wondrous fourth album, Pretty Years. Yet, despite D’Agostino’s misgivings, the album is Cymbals’ most generous work lyrically and sonically by a large margin, marking a new level of refinement for the band.
Early in their career, Cymbals were often compared to expansive legends like Built to Spill and Modest Mouse both for their sound and texture. While those bands’ cosmic sprawl will always be a backbone to their sound, here Cymbals become something like the unlikely heir to Deerhunter’s throne. Like Halcyon Digest or Monomania, Pretty Years features an album-length sonic palette that each song lives in. While Cymbals’ third record Lose is a modern-day indie classic, it has a “White Album”-type schizophrenia to it: the sonics of each song gleefully clash against the next, creating a patchwork that adroitly delivers D’Agostino’s heart wrenching poetry. Pretty Years, on the other hand, is shot through a consistent technicolor prism from the opening moments of “Finally” to the closing bursts of “Shrine”. Augmenting their sound with sonic influences from ‘80s rock (both mainstream and indie), as well as richer production, they create a consistent world that heretofore hasn’t existed in their catalog. This isn’t to say that Cymbals Eat Guitars have lost the intense and impassioned power that has always surged through their music. In fact, by honing in so specifically on a sound, they have created an ambitious album that is also wholly individual.
Cymbals Eat Guitars have a habit of swinging for the fences on their album openers and “Finally” is no different. Immediately setting the tone for the album, the song’s gigantic sound aims right for your heart, each crescendo feeling like bursting fireworks in a summer night sky. And yet, despite a positively oceanic performance from the band, D’Agostino sputters out the crushing lyric, “My love is a mantra / When I speak, it weakens / I’ll just squeeze your hand three times.” Love is the newfound subject of the album, spotlighted in the second track, “Have a Heart”, which D’Agostino calls his first real love song, with lyrics that detail a road from “behaving reprehensibly” to natural empathy. The outsider point-of-view illustrated in the song’s pre-chorus “But I’m so out of sync / And you’re out of sync with me” and its jangly bounce place it in the lineage of classics like Dinosaur Jr.’s “Freak Scene” and the Replacements “I Will Dare”.
These indie touches carry over into songs like “Close”, which features an ingratiating melody, motorik pulse, and searing guitar work not unlike Deerhunter’s work on Microcastle, and “Well”, which has prismatic keyboards and a knockout chorus. The deep influence of Bruce Springsteen asserts itself on two of the album’s best tracks, “Wish” and “4th of July, Philadelphia (Sandy)”. Both of these songs’ observant lyrics hearken most closely to those of Lose, with “4th of July” containing the album’s most poignant lines. After detailing a drunken joyride and an outburst of violence, D’Agostino sings, “My depression suddenly lifted / All the adrenaline shocked my nervous system / Swore I’d be present and thankful for every second / Later the feeling faded/I couldn’t help it.” That the band follows “4th of July” with the rave-up “Beam”, the only song that can appropriately be called punk, illustrates D’Agostino’s ambivalence between passive observation and the chase for ecstatic heights achievable through music.
The album’s three ballads, “Dancing Days”, “Mallwalking”, and the album-closer “Shrine” all reflect Cymbals’ progression: reasserting D’Agostino’s obsession with memory, gorgeous melodies, and the band’s brilliant understanding of dynamics, but pushing these tenets further in regards to emotional clarity and poetic resonance. All the songs encapsulate a sense of surrender, as “Dancing Days” says goodbye to youth and “Mallwalking” speaks of D’Agostino’s mother. But this surrender is best represented in “Shrine” where the song, and album, finishes with “Where will it all go when I die?/I’ll never know when I’m alive.” Yet while D’Agostino resolves with this acceptance of uncertainty, the band surges behind him with the very same magenta-tinted-fireworks-music that opened the album.
Pretty Years is a document of Cymbals Eat Guitars’ most accessible music, D’Agostino’s richest vocal performances, and his ever-deepening lyrical acuity. It’s the best release yet from one of America’s most promising bands. A band that seems to be actively scaling up with every single release, actively becoming legendary in front of our eyes. Whoever thought that such an impassioned goodbye could signal such a bright future?