Sometimes you can’t help but lose. It’s not the result of bad fortune, nor does it come from a lack of effort. You aren’t directly at fault, or maybe you could be, but you’d have to trace back uncomfortably far through your past decisions to find out. Usually losing is just the direction outside forces hurl you towards, and no matter how hard you try to hold onto a passing anchor you can’t keep enough of a grip to help but fall in.
At the most seeming inconsequence of it all you wonder how it could get any worse. “How many universes / Am I alive and dead in? / A new one every second,” wails Joseph D’Agostino on “4th Of July, Philadelphia (SANDY),” a single and highlight from the New Jersey rock band Cymbals Eat Guitars‘ most recent and fourth studio LP Pretty Years. The existential query was inspired by a real Independence Day incident where D’Agostino and his friends Alex (of Philadelphia indie rock fame as Alex G), Sam, and John drove through local fireworks displays at high speeds in a reckless manner that eventually got their driver assaulted by an angry family member of a nearby kid. The experience shocked D’Agostino out of an apathetic lethargy that he had settled in following a year of heavy touring, and it reminded him just how alive it feels to survive.
So when D’Agostino bellows out in amazement how different everything could be based on each passing moment, he’s not exactly looking for something better, but taking solace in things not being much worse. That isn’t so much an outlook of gratitude as it is one of cautious relief. “The path of least resistance/ Can’t make it matter,” D’Agostino sighs, before screaming out that his “life is sliding by.” He isn’t in control, but thankful that he’s yet to crash.
Cymbals Eat Guitars is a band that excels at spinning this dark optimism into something that feels altogether empowering. They’ve explored a number of sonic textures over their discography, as well as within single albums, but they’ve never condensed their explosive aggression into something quite as directly punchy as Pretty Years. Modern music’s single greatest behind-the-boards rock star John Congleton (Burn Your Fire For No Witness, St. Vincent) produces the hell out of the band, making sure every guitar urgently seethes while the drums continuously threaten to burst out of their stereophonic casing. The band’s previous LP LOSE earned them touring stints alongside the likes of emo-revival artists such as Modern Baseball, as well as their forbearers Brand New (Jesse Lacey produced the band’s recent one-off single “Aerobed”). Yet Pretty Years suggests instead classic rock ambitions with it’s swinging for the fences Springsteen grandeur.
But there’s a tugging nostalgia creating friction within D’Agostino’s guarded enthusiasm, one that imparts an undercurrent of remorse across an album that otherwise tries to make even breathing seem like hushed revelry. “Goodbye to my dancing days/ Goodbye to the friends who fell away/ Goodbye to my pretty years,” goes the chorus of LP centerpiece “Dancing Days.” If D’Agostino is appreciative for every minute he gets, he’s still not over the fact that he doesn’t get to keep them for long. The transitory nature of sensation can often feel meaningless. In all likelihood it probably is meaningless, but it’s also all you get. So even when you fail, it’s best to take a pause to remember just how much it makes you feel alive. Thankfully, Cymbals Eat Guitars won’t let you forget.