|Format||2LP Limited Pink Vinyl/
RIYL: Silver Jews, Pixies, Husker Du, Wilco, Pavement, Superchunk, Modest Mouse.
As the front person of celebrated indie band Cymbals Eat Guitars, guitarist and singer Joseph D’Agostino spent over a decade setting autobiographical, emotionally vivid lyrics against a backdrop of soaring and compositionally ambitious rock. After four critically acclaimed LPs that solidified D’Agostino’s reputation as a gifted songwriter, he chose to break from his long-term band and debut a new project: Empty Country. On 2020’s self-titled debut, D’Agostino’s storytelling lens shifted away from personal narrative and toward fiction; psychopaths, apparitions and deplorables populated a bleak and uncanny parallel version of American dystopia. Empty Country’s sprawling and sonically adventurous arrangements—filled out by collaborating musicians including Rachel and Zoë Browne (Field Mouse), Kyle Gillbride (Swearin’), Zena Kay (Angel Olsen), and former CEG drummer Charlotte Anne Dole—ranged from luminous jangle-pop to scorching emo-punk to narcotized Americana. Though the pandemic curtailed planned touring, a seven-piece iteration of the band played one packed Brooklyn show in May 2022, supported by Charles Bissell (The Wrens) and Field Mouse; Empty Country also backed Bissell on several classics from The Meadowlands. “It was a wonderful return to live music for all of us,” says D’Agostino. “So many folks reached out to me and told me how Empty Country offered them comfort during those first several months of being stuck inside. I’m happy that it came out and connected with some people and that I was able to establish this universe I could continue to build on.”
Empty Country II, the project’s second full-length, is a thrilling expansion of that world. D’Agostino pushed himself to new places as a songwriter, crafting a collection of short stories set to music that grapple with the biggest questions now hanging over America—gun violence, the addiction epidemic, and generational hopelessness among them. In 2020, he’d moved from Philadelphia to small-town New England to be closer to family, and his new locale, coupled with the dread of lockdown, inspired him to return to the haunted world from the first LP. “It’s pretty jarring to leave a city—where you can safely assume you’re aligned with your neighbors on many political and social issues—for somewhere more rural and conservative,” says D’Agostino, noting the Trump flags and Blue Lives Matter hood wraps that dot his new dirt road residence. Across the new album’s nine tracks, D’Agostino introduces us to a bevy of characters: three generations of West Virginia clairvoyants, crushed by the weight of their secret knowledge; a group of drag queens and misfits in early ‘80s New York City; a pill mill doctor’s daughter who dabbles in necromancy; a convicted killer; a bullied kid injured and alone in the forest as night falls. Through the stories of these characters, Empty Country II delivers an engaging and deeply moving rumination on time, family, and the disintegration of America.
Despite the stoicism of its storytelling, Empty Country II cuts the darkness with beauty, humor, and an earnest belief in the transcendent power of rock music. It was recorded over two weeks at Fidelitorium, the renowned studio in Kernersville, NC, belonging to R.E.M. producer Mitch Easter. Legendary recording engineer John Agnello, whose previous collaborations with Cymbals Eat Guitars resulted in their 2014 high-water mark, LOSE, brought his trademark clarity and nuance to the process, helping Empty Country II crackle with a vital energy that imbues these stories with genuine lifeforce. Dole returned on drums for the record, her virtuosic performances lending raw power and immediacy; her twin brother Patrick joined on bass, his decades of experience uplifting the songs with subtle melodicism and formidable technicality. The group's chemistry and deep personal history are palpable, allowing them to approach the record’s complex story with subtlety and dynamism. “Mitch has collected an astounding array of weird mics, amplifiers, and oddball orchestral instruments: organs, Buddhist temple bells, bar chimes, tubular bells,” enthuses D’Agostino about the studio. “FLA,” a gripping portrait of a queer tour boat pilot in the Florida Keys pining for their absent lover, was arranged from the ground so the group could incorporate Easter’s timpani. D’Agostino considers it a high point of his lengthy discography and lauds that song’s harmonica solo as “my favorite 30 seconds of music that I’ve ever been a part of.”
Empty Country II also features some of D’Agostino’s most danceable songs—like “David,” a tribute to D’Agostino’s late friend David Berman. Featuring a lyrical tapestry of Silver Jews references and surreally beautiful images, head-nodding Philly soul grooves collapse into cosmic freeform jazz-inspired sections, ornamented with inventive hand percussion, marimba flourishes, and toe-tapping piano chords. “Recite a poem as the day vibrates,” D’Agostino sings. “I finally wrote this song for you / But I don’t know who I’d show it to.” It’s a paraphrase of W.S. Merwin’s famed short poem “Elegy”, written after the passing of his own mentor, John Berryman. On “Bootsie,” a runaway girl from West Virginia explores the crumbling, glorious 1980s New York City of Paris is Burning, finding community in a scene of drag queens who offer her a new way of thinking about what makes America—and rock music—great. Based on his own mother’s experiences at the height of the AIDS epidemic, the song has deep personal meaning to D’Agostino. “The men you thought were brave / are arrogant and depraved,” he sings against the damaged disco beats of the Dole siblings’ rhythm section. Inverting the chorus of the Talking Heads’ “Heaven,” the lyrics of “Bootsie” celebrate the underdogs and misfits: “Hell is the place where everything happens / The band’s playing all the songs ever written at once / Shape the chaos, make your little story / Baby, this life’s perfect purgatory.”
Though Empty Country II is a record about the forces that drive Americans apart, it’s also imbued with empathic love and an understanding of what binds people to family and country—in spite of the darknesses we encounter. The concept of a Great American Rock Album might scan as outdated in 2023, but with this sprawling and uncompromising epic, D’Agostino and Empty Country shatter ambivalence and confront the horrors with a community-minded sense of cautious optimism. “We may be staring into an abyss,” says D’Agostino. “But we’re all staring together.”
9. Cool S