Ah, The Weirdness.
Generally speaking, The Weirdness hits plenty of artists looking to follow-up their most critically acclaimed album. The timeline goes something like this: The Artist has likely released several albums to generally positive reviews. The Artist may have a modest-yet-loyal fanbase. Then, something happens to The Artist, causing them to reach within and write The Defining Statement. The Defining Statement is an album that makes critics take notice; The Defining Statement is a bridge between fans and critics. In fact, sometimes (but not always), The Artist goes on to resent or even loathe the success of The Defining Statement, and in an act of defiance, they give into The Weirdness.
The Weirdness is an album that turns heads. It is commonly experimental, a sonic left turn that pays more attention to The Artist’s tastes and less attention to what the fanbase may want. It can be an unfiltered and honest look into The Artist’s thoughts and influences. In short: The Weirdness can be awesome.
Pretty Years is Cymbals Eat Guitars’ weird album. That may not seem entirely accurate when your discography includes an album as complex as Lenses Alien, but it does meet all of the criteria. Following LOSE, an album with enough grief for the critical community and enough hooks for an entirely new fanbase, Pretty Years arrives with a new motif. Recorded in just four days and utilizing mainly first and second takes, Pretty Years delivers itself as a raw embodiment of the band Cymbals Eat Guitars are at this point in their career.
Merging the density of Lenses Alien’s production with the hooks of LOSE, Pretty Years is a welcome shift in gravity that propels the band forward as they borrow from the past. For example, lead single “Wish” blends abrasive Tom Waits-style vocals with what can only be described as the sounds of the E Street Band in Hell. Joseph D’Agostino’s voice is abrasive at first, but by the chorus, it feels comfortable. In the context of the album, it’s an absolute blast.
“Wish” is a successful single in the sense that it cued listeners in on The Weirdness (even if there isn’t anything else quite as weird here), but at the same time, it proves a peculiar choice following the album’s biggest hook (and one of the band’s best songs to date). “Have a Heart” is one of several highlits here, fueled by the kind of well-penned nostalgia that makes Pretty Years universally relatable. The song also offers the instantly quotable line, “But I’m so out of sync/And you’re out of sync with me,” before D’Agostino sings of “things we did when we were young and evil” against buzzing synths and bouncing guitars (recalled later during “WELL”).
“Have a Heart” is the first song of its kind that accomplishes the near impossible in making Cymbals Eat Guitars sound, well, dancey — a trend that continues with “Wish” and “Close.” Strangely enough, Pretty Years seems to double as Cymbals Eat Guitars’ most accessible album. In fact, opening track “Finally” feels like a primer for the band’s entire discography, an explosive anthem that details desire to “light up the night” with “refineries and Christmas lights.”
These first four tracks serve as a warm introduction to the album’s heavier, fuzzier B-side. Songs like “4th of July, Philadelphia (SANDY)” and “Beam” pair bass-heavy guitars and percussion with lyrics as light as namedropping musician friends like Alex G and as heavy as the autobiographical terror of witnessing a friend’s near-death experience:
My depression finally lifted
All the adrenaline shocked my nervous system
Swore I’d be present and grateful for every second/Later the feeling faded
I couldn’t help it
But Pretty Years’ defining moment is also its most unique; “Mallwalking” showcases Brian Hamilton’s multi-textured synths with sounds as surreal as the song’s content. A piano-driven fever dream about Columbine, the song is home to the album’s most memorable moment, as D’Agostino sings, “And when they got to me/Asked if I believe/I said, “Believe in what?”
It’s these diverse faces that Cymbals Eat Guitars manage to wear without losing any of their genuineness that makes them such an integral part of today’s indie-rock realm. In just four days, the band managed to record the most ambitious, challenging and hook-laden record of their career. In “Dancing Days,” following a delicate falsetto that hardly sounds like D’Agostino, he sings, “Goodbye to my dancing days/Goodbye to the friends who fell away/Goodbye to my pretty years.” Perhaps he is still reeling from the loss detailed on the band’s last album, but at least he can take pride in the impact his album-length coping strategies will have on listeners for years to come.