A new Clap Your Hands Say Yeah album always comes with a weight of expectation for their dedicated fanbase, a hope that the new songs on offer will lift the ears to the heights of their eponymous debut album. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, led by frontman Alec Ounsworth, are the greatest modern example of the way an albatross of a critically acclaimed debut album can weigh down a band. On their fifth outing, New Fragility, Ounsworth’s writing does indeed reach the heights of expectation, showing himself to be a master of chaotic, stream of consciousness lyricism to the sound of ethereal guitars.
Opener ‘Hesitating Nation’ is a clear thesis statement, a powerful rhythm underpinning Ounsworth’s signature pained vocals, which sound more like a gutteral exultation of feeling than any sort of ‘singing’ you might typically expect of a frontman in an indie band. It’s certainly an acquired taste and has been since the band first emerged with their breakout single ‘The Skin of My Yellow Country Teeth’. If it captures you though, it captures you entirely.
The album is inspired by the writings of David Foster Wallace, with the album’s title taken from the short story ‘Forever Overheard’, from the collection Brief Interviews With Hideous Men – “You have grown into a new fragility,” says the story’s adolescent narrator. Certainly this feeling of vulnerability hangs over the entire album – with song titles like ‘Innocent Weight’, the aforementioned ‘Hesitating Nation’ and ‘If I Were More Like Jesus’. Ounsworth himself remarked that the album is about “…what I think we’re all experiencing at the moment, certainly here in the United States anyway – trying to move forward amidst an almost cruel uncertainty.” In this rather turbulent time in American politics, you would think it almost impossible as an American writer to ignore the anxieties so clearly present in the very fabric of the society itself. On New Fragility, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah certainly show kind of maturity, almost as though as a project they’ve grown comfortable in that feeling of constantly brushing up against the edge of comfort and security.
Midway through the record, the band hark back with standout track ‘CYHSY, 2005’, a meditation on the past filled with “cheap Italian wine” and a clear desire to want to “stay home”. Could this be a call out to the comfort of the past? Certainly we have all spent time the past year remembering the easy days of before when a simple trip to the pub was not a standout moment in our year. Ounsworth recollecting the times where any place he laid his hat was his home has a feeling now of a novelty. Perhaps also for a band that in 2005 was at the apparent peak of its powers there may be an element of the records ‘fragility’ coming from the constant references to the start that Clap Your Hands Say Yeah have had to endure through their career.
In closing, New Fragility is clearly Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s strongest work since their debut and largely that’s because it seems unafraid of the influence that early work has had on not just their band, but on the wider indie-rock community. There’s an innocence here that is captivating and a testament to Ounsworth’s continued ability to channel the deeper feelings of American culture.
New Fragility is out on 12th February – pre-order on vinyl, CD or digital download here.
Alec Ounsworth performs a live-streamed album launch show, playing tracks from the new album and the band’s back-catalogue with new arrangements on piano and acoustic guitar on 29th January – get tickets here.
Review by Alexander Sarychkin – Check out Alex’s new radio show ‘Horsing Around’ on EN5Radio.com, every Thursday 6pm-8pm.