Album Review: Empty Country – “Empty Country”
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A certain lightness shines throughout Empty Country, the debut LP from Joseph D’Agostino’s new solo project Empty Country. I don’t mean to say that this isn’t a record with heavy themes and serious intentions, because it definitely has both of those things. But on D’Agostino’s first record since his old band Cymbals Eat Guitars called it quits, a freshness is evident that seems impossible to ignore. Cymbals was critically lauded but perpetually underappreciated, and each record from that band after their impressive 2009 debut Why There Are Mountains reached for a huge, monumental statement. And while each of those three successive records achieved in making those statements, they still operated on the assumption that the stakes were sky high, that each new record had to be the one.
But now, that band has faded away unceremoniously, and a new project for D’Agostino means that the weight of these expectations are off, or at least subdued. And “Marion,” the opening track on Empty Country, revels in that newfound weightlessness. “Marion” glimmers in acoustic brightness, self-assured in a steady strum as it constructs a sketch of a 1960s coal miner who passes away and leaves his significant other with a newborn. Two parallel histories play out here, one of the coal miner and one of the baby, exploring mortality and new life in ambiguous and poignant ways. It’s hard to decide what to make of the “blue baby” with a “hole in her heart,” but there’s no denying that “Marian” sounds wide-eyed and hopeful.
The sound of Empty Country isn’t all that different from what we’ve learned to expect from D’Agostino through his work with Cymbals—it feels confident, comfortable, and true to his strengths. But at the same time, none of these songs would fit on any of the Cymbals Eat Guitars records. The songs here are less dense, the corners of each track aren’t packed with walls of guitars or reverb like they were on the final Cymbals record Pretty Years. On Empty Country, the songs breathe, they don’t fret about negative space, and they patiently let new ideas unfold to excellent results. “Chance” is a drawn-out lullaby that develops with grace into a thoughtful circus. “Ultrasound” rocks like Cymbals but sports messier, more ragged edges. “Untitled” expands into colorful excess (including bongos!) and contracts to almost nothing in dizzying contrast.
While D’Agostino steps out of old shoes with Empty Country, he becomes even more deft at stepping into new ones. The wryly happy-go-lucky sound of “Becca” sharpens the songwriter’s illustration of a woman who gives out fake, and dangerous, eclipse glasses to tourists. The lush closer “SWIM” gives life to a character caught in a cycle of crime and depression, feeling stuck in the wrong time. Like John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats, another great character songwriter, D’Agostino approaches all of his subjects with a radical empathy and humanity, their fictional profundities as honest and true as any real life hero’s—“we’re evil baby/sorry/guess some people have to be.”
D’Agostino has always had a unique vocal style—his blown-out yelp is evocative and versatile, adjusting to different moods and styles with surprising ease. “Emerald” shows how good he’s gotten at switching gears on the fly, the whisper that opens the song giving way to a full-throated yell as the song wades in and out of ghostly psychedelics. The vibrant choruses of “Southern Cloud” and “Ultrasound” recall his work on songs like “Finally” and “Warning,” in which the highest volume of his voice seems to call powerfully into another plane, making a powerful sound that doesn’t seem to leave you even after the song’s long over.
As the record closes awash in strings, D’Agostino sings with a sentimental yearning “come and live it down with me.” It’s an invitation from the troubled narrator of “SWIM” to someone unspecified, maybe anyone, but it makes sense in the context of the songwriter’s career. Inviting, sincere, and immediate, Empty Country is a record that I don’t think Cymbals Eat Guitars could have made. It feels intrinsically connected with D’Agostino’s fresh start as a solo artist, an invitation to something new.
Jordan Walsh | @jordalsh
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