“THESE songs are politically motivated, which is unusual for me,” Alec Ounsworth says of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s sixth studio album, New Fragility, which is out this week.
He’s a fine lyricist, is Alec, one of the most articulate operating in the US alternative scene, and arguably an even finer vocalist, his voice carrying and articulating so much emotional complexity; but this political slant is something of a departure.
“The only other politically motivated song I’ve written is ‘Upon This Tidal Wave of Young Blood”, he confirms – a song which helped launch the band’s eponymous debut some 15 years back now.
New Fragility is a title that succinctly sums up exactly where we’re at as a civilisation, as a species, as nation states; a trauma Alec’s spent the best part of three years processing.
“It’s pretty personal,” he confesses. “It’s about what I think we’re all experiencing at the moment, certainly here in the United States anyway – trying to move forward amidst an almost cruel uncertainty.”
The title is taken from a short story by much-missed literary superbrain David Foster Wallace, “Forever Overheard,” from the short story collection Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, in which the narrator says: “You have grown into a new fragility.” (And if you like brilliantly intelligent and weird and hyper-inventive writing, that is so a book you need …)
Taking that line as a cue to extemporise from, the title track documents the bitter end of a long relationship comes to an end.
But that’s just part of the palette of subjects Alec tackles; as we’ve noted, he moves beyond the sphere of the personal-political and out into that ruder world we’ve all been dragged kicking and screaming into: a more radicalised, bipolar place where the even the most defiantly introverted and personal has become big-P Political.
Thus New Fragility finds Ounsworth writing with his trademark poetic candour not only of depression, aging, the past; but of what he memorably calls “the failed democratic experiment that is the United States of America” and the hypocrisy of the American government, 2020 vintage. (Ring any bells over this side of the Atlantic, at all?)
Musically, 2020 was a year of consolidation for Clap Your Hands Say Yeah; always master of his own destiny, Alec consolidated his back catalogue for release across all digital service providers. Each respective album now comes supplemented with a whole extra album in addenda containing demos, outtakes, B-sides and live and radio session material (you can read our story about that here).
Especially perhaps with the Biden political reset Stateside, 2021 is a year to stop tarrying and strike out once more on ventures new. That pretty much goes for all of us, I guess. Although it won’t be an easy year, by any chalk, I’m sure; we should be ready for a new fragility. Speaking of which; shall we?
The way he manages to loft lo-fi songwriting towards absolutely heartfelt and anthemic territory, I think we’re in for a treat, despite the bitter taste of the subject matter at hand.
New Fragility gradually hums into reality on the sustain of “Hesitation Nation” one of the twin announcing single drops last October. It’s a song which Alec says is “… meant to convey my sense of disappointment and alienation with the rewarded mentality of getting ahead at all costs, inevitably to the detriment of those who didn’t sign up to be part of the experiment.”
His voice flies free in expression in that emotive tenor of his, referencing Lee Hazlewood as he sings “Who are we to go and make big plans? / Married in a fever, children in a panic … the shirt with the wine stain, the car is not running.” Lyrics aside, the depth of empathy he brings in itself gives voice to all the grinding, suddenly crashing anxiety of the modern precariat, as he pushes the pocket in a chanting rush, true and raw; as he rails and cries and mourns over wintry melody.
Alec also double-whammied us with an early drop of “Thousand Oaks,” which shifts through the gears even further from an opener which was itself pretty breathless. He says: “In 2018, there was a shooting in Thousand Oaks, CA which killed 13 people. This song has to do with the impotence of the American government in the face of such tragedies.
“I was watching an interview with Susan Orfanos, who lost her son,” he continues. “It was difficult to watch, and left me heartbroken for her and infuriated that so little has been done about gun control in the United States.”
Soar is one of those words that it’s all too easy to reach for when writing about a certain type of song; but boy, 100% “Thousand Oaks” does. It seems to combine some of that effortless, autumnal atmosphere of Fables Of The Reconstruction-era R.E.M. with The Waterboys’ Mike Scott in this same era: much, much more “Church Not Made With Hands” than “The Whole Of The Moon”; that almost mystic, wide-eyed wonder. The lyrics have economy but still paint the starkest picture in a sorrowful rage: “And the long, blank stares / And the open mouths / She had her last shirt on / Now all stained with blood / With nowhere to run / And you sit and wonder whether anything could be done.” The piano and bass thrum and chug inexorably, backgrounded synths adding a plainsong as the guitar wires and spirals finally.
After such an emotionally high-octane eight minutes “Dee, Forgiven” lets up a little. Just … a little. It’s a slow, heartfelt waltz, which sounds bleary and drunken on first assumption; but which you soon realise is deliberately a weary, anaesthetised stumble. It focuses the lense into the personal rather than the national; that keynote condition of our times, anxiety, and the fug of the prescribed medicinal sticking plaster. Alec is intense, ripping forth, unfettered. The harmonica soliloquy brings a wordless precision to our bearing witness. It gives voice to woe.
On the title track Alec is looking in the mirror; and maybe not really loving what he sees. ““I never want to take another chance on anyone”, he confides bruised and raw; “I can’t believe the things I do to myself”. It dives into the dark conclusion to a relationship, as the tears spill and the recriminations surface; reassessments, scales falling from eyes.
All this sadness is, however, married to a DM-meets-dancefloor kinda groove and a light touch, piano trilling, bass keeping it tight on the root note, spaces opening for synths and muted guitars to sprinkle melody into.
“Innocent Weight” sees a first for CYHSY: Alec employs a string quartet, which unfurls and flowers without percussion in a thematic coda to “New Fragility”, continuing to rake the ashes of that failed amour, picking at the scabs of the worst transgressions: “On a holiday, you said you just needed to get away / Taking some midnight drive out to Long Beach Island / Stranded, half-naked on a strange man’s couch.”
What the string quartet achieves so neatly is to dive and swoop in a complex dance with Alec’s voice, both exploring melodically at their whim. Alec’s lead guitar moment falls in line behind his voice and pitch-bends and sings microtonally in fuzz, the better to nail that complex emotion: all the shades of bonechill that sit behind the simplicity of that resolving statement: “I don’t know what I’ve done wrong”. It feels like dawn, does this song.
We’re into the melting centre of Alec’s confection here, with “Mirror Song” another sad but unflinching observation, containing some cracking lines: “Let’s see, describe to me your injury in a drunken late night text / You’ve been hurt before and now want more / You can count on me to join you under the wreckage / For it seems we’re still the passengers, still Iggy’s loyal customers.” It’s Beatlesesque, (I’m thinking “For No One”) that initial interplay of descending piano figure and vocal singsong, before heading somewhere more sharp-edged and lamenting than Macca has usually ventured.
All the best bands have the courage to be self-referential. Witness Felt’s “Ballad Of The Band” and The Fall’s “Win Fall CD 2080”. Alec adds his outfit to a fine lineage with the retrospective of “CYHSY, 2005”, about – at least in the most literal reading, there being layers here – the blues of the circuit, paying your dues. “Little Rock was fine / Memphis next, then Texas bound … When all I really wanted to do was stay home”, he sings.
“The guilt about having so much opportunity but feeling empty inside is not easy to reconcile,” he admits. “I’m mostly over it now.” Musically it’s a smooth and powerful glide, eating up the tarmac, with an elegant and folky swoop of a hook. .
“Where They Perform Miracles” takes its lyrical seed from his time as an anthropology undergrad, during which he made trips to investigate Mexican shamanic culture. He considered the idea of using alternative methods of healing to fix a broken relationship; to return to “a place of comfort”, as he puts it in the song.
“Take my hand again”, he yearns; “I want to be the one who got to know you when you gave it all away, you had nothing left.” There’s simple, minor acoustic chords, a raw harmonica, and by god when his voice cracks … .
Commenting on the song, Alec observed: “Most of these rituals are meant to wake you up physically and emotionally. A lot of it seems over the top, but people need that to burn something into their minds.”
“I Went Looking For Trouble”, is backwoods Americana with the intensity of a jazz torchsong in the way Alec just breezes around the octave, his voice full of humanity and feeling. Lady Day would’ve sung this. Of course that’s a compliment. And as the chorus builds it finds a rock solidity; it also includes a humdinger of a line in “The rain is falling and it chases us like a rapist”. The second passage takes the song into a more theatrical catharsis. Thinking wistfully ahead of a better time, this has festival set-closing flourish written right through it.
“If I Were More Like Jesus” is a slow piano blues for the small hours, playing in that zone of appealing to a higher power who seems to have put us on block, adjacent lyrically at points to that Spacemen 3/Spiritualized drugs-religion concurrency as he sings: “Chemicals on the balcony / We took enough to make anybody turn blue.” The recording is deliciously rough and ready, swaddled in one-take tape hiss … and when his voice breaks and comes unstuck while flying for the sun, by god you’ll shiver.
Alec looks right at this darkened world and calls it as he sees it. It’s a sad record; it’s a mad record; but it’s also a proud record. In it’s more geopolitical moments it says: Look at the state of this. But we shall overcome.
At its most musically extrovert, it takes a certain form of anthemic indie – the chugging bass, the soaring vocals – and tears through that paper-thin cliche like a stunt motorcyclist as his voice wrings and tears the form into new communicative shapes. That rage and horror is articulated with poetry and precision and more often than not has an eye on you being able to sing along with abandon; and make no mistake, that marriage of the lyric and the sonic and the somatic is a very powerful tool.
In a way, let’s hope the next CYHSY album is a calmer affair, if only because that means as a whole society we’ve reached a better place. But we should be glad in a time which is musically apolitical, save a few souls, that Alec can diarise and call the humbug with such vocal acuity.
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s New Fragility will be released by CYHSY / Secretly Distribution on February 12th on digital, CD, trad black and coke bottle-clear vinyl; you can place your order for a very fine record right now, here.