EMPTY COUNTRY- ‘Empty Country’

Joseph D’Agostino has been through hell. And of course that doesn’t just mean the injustice of his former band, the terrific but terribly-named Cymbals Eat Guitars, never getting the credit they deserved. In between that outfit’s slow demise and the rise of his solo project, Empty Country, he’s also faced mental health challenges, the suicide of a friend and mentor, the apparent dissolution of the label that was originally lined up to release this record, and a goddamn global pandemic that has stopped him from playing live right when it might matter most. There’s more even, the guy has no luck.

If the pain, upheaval and anguish have bled into his new music though, it’s not immediately obvious. There are no sharp turns here, few new avenues. Instead, if you’re familiar with Cymbals Eat Guitars, you’ll recognise the artistic approach, the inventive melodies, and the frontman’s high, expressive vocals. The biggest differences are in decibels and dread. Perhaps by virtue of working mostly alone, Empty Country is a quieter, simpler, less agitated proposition.

Where before there was a rushing, busy rhythm section, here the drums tread lightly or not at all. Instead of any grandiose layers or even 80s excess, there’s a delicate Americana vibe. And in place of the flashing lights, bold colours, and dense drama of the final Cymbals Eat Guitars album, ‘Empty Country’ is sweet, warm, and, well, let’s not dwell on this any longer… it’s almost perfect.

Listening to this record for the first time is like tuning into a new radio station only to find them playing ten outstanding tracks you’ve somehow never heard before all in a row, hit after hit after hit after hit. And you can’t believe what’s happening, and you question where have these songs have been all your life, and you look for the nearest pen, because quick, you’ve got to write these titles down, and you can’t quite finish because wow, how is this song so good, wait, how is the next song even better!

What a rush.

‘Marian’ shimmers in the sun, an arresting mess of melodies that sounds like it has existed forever, ‘Untitled’ is Springsteen switching to emo, ‘Clearing’ could be an unearthed Radiohead gem, and if there are a couple of satisfyingly wild, discordant jangles reminscent of D’Agostino’s past work, ‘Chance’ is a slow, six-minute swell of daydream post-rock incorporating music box keys, violin and cello that feels like he’s tapping into something brand new. There’s such rewarding consistency throughout, it’s actually hard to pick out highlights.

As complete as ‘Empty Country’ feels, there are moments, sometimes incredibly fleeting moments, where you can see, or are perhaps purposefully shown, how all of the edges meet. Moments like the electric amplifier buzz at the beginning of ‘Marian’, the half-second synth blare at the start of ‘Ultrasound’, and the reverberating “whoop” three minutes into ‘Diamond’. More with every listen too. They make the record feel alive and real and lived-in, or maybe like a patchwork blanket, something stitched together with so much love and care. It’s increasingly rare. It’s incredibly beautiful.

The lyric sheet is another matter. While D’Agostino often swallows syllables and uses his voice like another instrument- more focussed on conveying feeling or embellishing melodies than making sure you hear every word- he is telling some ugly stories. There’s talk of hospital visits, collapsing mines, drug addiction, and death. And the angelic wail at the centre of ‘Clearing’ is actually the frontman describing his bones turning to dust. Here, perhaps, is where his pain seeps through.

A cloud never settles over the album though. If anything, the worst tales here are softened by the sweetest tunes. Oh, and he’s sorted out the name thing too. Whatever you’re thinking of when you hear the words Empty Country, it’s exactly the right images to match the music.

‘Empty Country’ (the record) is an instant classic then, one of the albums of the year. Empty Country (the band) deserves all the success, and, for just once, all the luck in the world. From hell, Joseph D’Agostino has wrought heaven.

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