Staten Island quartet Cymbals Eat Guitars were first recognized for their ability to melt down all the formulas from established indie rock giants like Built To Spill and Pavement, and repurpose the product through their own ambitious and cacophonous lens. Why There Are Mountains (Memphis Industries, 2009) and Lenses Alien (Memphis Industries, 2011) provided guitar-heavy concoctions that made their way onto college radio charts and ’90s revivalist playlists alike. Through all the noise, part of what made these albums interesting listening experiences was the performance of lead singer/guitarist Joseph D’Agostino, whose encyclopedia-bending lyrics added some brains (and a bit of head scratching) to the mix.
D’Agostino has admitted that those first two albums were written when he was a bit short on life experience, and behind the references to things like parabolas and papulose lichen there was a bit of a disconnect present. It was as if the narrator wanted to remain just that, and he made sure never to give up too many specifics about the characters and moments that were captured in each of these early tracks.
Fast forward a couple years to the group’s third album, Lose, and the growth is palpable. Inspired by the death of close friend Benjamin High, D’Agostino and crew have crafted an album that reaches as far back as childhood, and examines certain points of interests with clear eyes and a longing rooted in both nostalgia and cynicism. This time around, the specifics are there. And though each isolated moment may not be immediately relatable, they create a universal portrait of our struggle with the loss of youth and the arduous task of soldiering forward while a part of us grasps for those milestones of the past.
For D’Agostino, those long gone moments are often set in both the mythical and actual universes of home-state New Jersey. Lead off track Jackson, whose pseudo-ballad tension builds to the point of breaking, is named and placed in the terrain where the Ramapough Mountain Indians once lived but now houses Six Flags Great Adventure. The mythology behind these grounds, combined with literal and figurative moments of weightlessness, creates an air of anxiety that may have felt awful in the moment, but has since been sentimentally relived over and over again.
As powerful as Jackson is, other tracks on the album achieve impact without fantastic or starry-eyed elements. Child Bride tells a very real story of a childhood friend who disappeared after a domestic abuse incident, and the surreal experience of running into this person years later. XR, a harmonica-led basement punk cut, appropriately covers a time in a young musicians life where going to record stores (Vintage Vinyl specifically) and watching a band like the Wrens play some random spot in Philly were the only things on tap for the weekend. These songs provide the personal heart that previous Cymbals releases lacked, which keeps the somewhat heavy lyrical content from becoming inaccessible.
Another step the band has taken on this album is a bit of a surprising one considering they’re three albums in: the songs are simpler. While the musicianship is as intricate and tight as ever, Lose spends less time chauffeuring us through backroad time and tempo changes, opting to stick to the highways of more traditional song structures. Warning, with its new-wave guitar lead, is a perfect exercise in maintaining simplicity without sacrificing tenacity. Even the eight-minute Laramie cruises along with a sense of purpose, resisting the urge to recede into clouds of feedback. Closing number 2 Hip Soul may be the most difficult to wrap your head around sonically, as dissonance surrounds memories of old drinking spots and tales of older kids beating up animals at the zoo (fact really is stranger than fiction). That said, the song still provides the type of personal insight that pumps life throughout Lose.
Sometimes, it can be hard not to try and transport yourself back into the moonlit driver’s seat of an old car, brand new CD blasting through the speakers and relive a moment that seemed to be created specifically for you. On Lose you’ll find similar mediations from an individual whose unflinching discussions of these moments and how they affect the present and future provide a very human interaction between narrator and listener. It’s cathartic to witness D’Agostino, now 25, and the rest of Cymbals Eat Guitars wail, shred and stretch their legs over what is at times fairly dark subject matter. But attempting to sugarcoat the content would’ve trivialized the impact that each friend, band, car, basement and loss had, and then Lose would’ve just been another great sounding album that kept itself at arm’s length again.