by Craig Howieson
Bearing the weight of external catastrophes and personal hardship, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah emerge warily emboldened on New Fragility – a record that retains its beauty while swallowing the bitterest of pills
The past four years have been an intensely scary and alienating time to be a liberal American. As nationalistic agendas have invaded and overpowered the mainstream, voices of reason and empathy have been exiled to the margins. On Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s latest record, New Fragility, Alec Ounsworth espouses an irate exasperation. Once cloaked in metaphor and obscure imagery, his lyrics ring out with a new-found directness – set against larger than life arrangements the likes of which have not been heard thus far in his career. Impossible for his politics to be kept separate from his art, they are now one and the same.
The themes of New Fragility present as the two faces of a weighted coin free falling into a well. Or sewer depending on your reading. On one side is the complete disillusionment with the country and social constructs that shape his life. On the other is the ravaged toll of a relationship’s breakdown. These are not mirror images, but nor are they opposites. Throughout New Fragility, Ounsworth probes at the common thread of abandonment, and loss of faith that can come from both.
The opening gambits of Hesitating Nation and Thousand Oaks seer with Ounsworth’s increasingly politicised voice. The former breaks down the crush of late capitalism (‘Holidays are working days to us now’), as Ounsworth’s signifying keys are laced with a nervous twitch of staccato electric guitar. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah have always retained enough of a disco feel to ensure the shuffle of feet at shows, and, despite the abundance of slower moments on New Fragility, the love and appreciation of a distinct groove still shines through.
For what is now his eighth record in a 15-year career, New Fragility is not without its moments of nostalgia. But on the autobiographical CYHSY, 2005, Ounsworth does not bask in rose lit halls, choosing instead to contemplate what may have been lost upon the way. (‘All I really wanted to do was stay home’). And despite the toy piano that drizzles over the album and an outro riff to Thousand Oaks that is just close enough to that of The Skin Of My Yellow Country Teeth to raise a smile, Ounsworth has dramatically progressed in the meticulous care with which he crafts his arrangements. It is when the tempo drops to a resting coma that the real magic appears – the string quartet on Innocent Weight, or the gentle lapping of guitars on Where They Perform Miracles.
There is a lot of disenchantment on New Fragility as Ounsworth fights for relationships and a place within a country that feels so alien. We live in chaotic times – citizens of a world that is advancing quicker than we can comprehend and keep up with. It is a place many of us feel unequipped for – one filled with fear and uncertainty. But there are still miracles to be found – appearing in the lessons we can pass on to those who come after, and in the control we can still exert over our own actions.
And as a wind hollowed blast of harmonica blows through Where They Perform Miracles, like a tumbleweed of nostalgic Americana, Ounsworth nods to the history of a country he’s no longer sure he wants to be part of. Defiant that he will not be crushed under its weight.
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