Cymbals Eat Guitars have always felt like the ’90s seen through the speckled lens of our internet era; a sprawling soundscape of equal parts Northwest Sound and diligent worship of Pavement’s meticulous sloppiness, all stitched together with a devious millennial paranoia. Why There Are Mountains documents the collapse of memory and self through an almost McCarthyian idolization of the frequently horrific landscape (and the hazy sea), while Lenses Alien uses obliterating violence and disjointed modernist poetry to the same ends.
So even if the opening cut off LOSE, the opaquely titled “Jackson,” sounds like business as usual at first—the loping piano, the chanting “ooooohs” swirling in the background, the sky-high guitar solo—it sinks in eventually that this is something entirely different from its predecessors. In fact, pay enough attention and Joseph D’Agostino’s lyrics start to sound more and more like Mark Kozelak on this year’s still excellent Benji; a delirious attempt to recreate and contain a past that has rapidly spiraled into both obscurity and unalterable concrete through dizzyingly confessional writing.
On “XR,” over distorted harmonica buzzsaws, D’Agnostino howls “Broke my bong on purpose/hit the ceiling with weed/those summer benzo blackouts/erased my identity,” and, later, “Keepsake tinnitus shrieks me to sleep/Each frequency’s a memory of some/Show we attended.” Then, on the comparatively delicate “Child Bride,” it’s “Child bride/you were my best friend/til your dad slapped the living shit out of you/in front of me,” and on “LifeNet,” “I’m sorry/You don’t know these people so/what could this mean to you?/They’re history and this won’t make a difference/there’s radiation living for a million years.” It’s an album that beautifully explores the pains and limitations of memory, as something that binds the self and yet still gives absolute form to the individual, and D’Agostino’s more grounded poetry serves the music and its intentions better than ever before.
It’s easy to get lost in the panache of buzz phrases like “90s revivalism” or “indie rock” or whatever—and surely Cymbals Eat Guitars inevitably filter into these dreaded confines—but here finally is a record that appeals to its status as both historical chronical and loving homage. It’s not just a record that’s born from adoration of certain bands and a certain time, but instead an opus of reflection and art that blooms from the life lived during those times. If it’s painfully obvious D’Agostino was listening to Built to Spill all the while “riding through Jackson pines/towards Six Flags to wait in line,” then maybe that’s exactly the point.
But even without all the loving details, all the soul melted all over the record, there’s still plenty to adore here. The chugging glam rock guitar of “Chambers,” the noisy breakdown that explodes out of “Lamaria’s” outro, the gentle piano melody that runs through “Child Bride’s” various bridges. Top that with endlessly infectious choruses and LOSE ends up not only being a startling progression for a still developing band but also one of the best albums of the year. And who knows; maybe someday someone will write a reflective record about their own personal oblivions while somewhere in the background LOSE spun on endlessly—history has a funny way of working like that, sometimes.
The title of Cymbals Eat Guitars’ new album is suffused with suggestions. Lose. It works well as a phrase, alongside the band name. Like, “Cymbals Eat Guitars Lose.” What could it mean? That’s up to your interpretation.
The record is rooted in loss (a driving inspiration for the album was a friend’s death) so you could say “Cymbals Eat Guitars Lose A Friend” and follow the thematic implications of that loss. You could go derisive and inject your own takedown of CEG’s sound—“Cymbals Eat Guitars Lose Their Train of Thought”—and divulge your feelings toward the song lengths (bloated, you could say) and the lyricism (orotund, you might scoff) and the cover art (low-grade Lynchian imagery, you might decry). If you really want to ratchet up the snark, you could simply say, “Cymbals Eat Guitars Lose.”
The latter interpretation doesn’t matter one jot, though. CEG has never been a group to open itself up to rote compartmentalization, and Lose is a real typifier of this. Owing itself to the aforementioned death or some other manifestation of loss, Lose sounds darker than prior CEG albums, which were buoyed by (if not innate, than something akin to) an improvisatory verve. That’s not to say Lose doesn’t feel spontaneous either—the music still shifts and pivots (for lack of a better term) organically—but the buoyancy that graced both Why There Are Mountains and Lenses Alien has given way to a different momentum.
It feels like (almost) CEG is playing closer to the heart on Lose; the sonic envelope that billowed out from them (like those strange creatures from Italo Calvino’s “Blood, Sea”) has been drawn taut over their osseolature. The lyrics move between the cosmographic (“Place Names:” “You whisper now from outside time / ‘The Milky Way’s a swirling drain / Gotta laugh the dread away / There’s no word for what I became.’”) and the endearing (“XR:” “Fuck your learner’s permit / Drive down to Philly with me / To see the Wrens in a rec room”) and the pained (“Chambers:” “It’s technically NYC but dear Christ does it get lonely”) and the frightening (“Jackson Whites:” “Come the fuck on / I don’t wanna die”).
Maybe you’ll bemoan the slight deflation, the slight stiffening CEG exhibits on Lose. Call it age, or maturity, or grief, or what have you. But whatever the patina blooming on the surface of CEG, recognize its argent luster.
Lose is out now on Barsuk Records.