On rare, magical occasion, a rock song can offer pure catharsis—capturing the raw essence of an emotion you’re too scared to confront without the comfort of a riff. And I’ll never forget the first time I heard “Chambers,” a glistening sing-along from Cymbals Eat Guitars’ third LP. Over palm-muted new-wave guitars and pixie-dust keyboards, frontman Joe D’Agostino ponders the “slow education” of grief—mourning his ill, 16-year-old black lab while she’s still alive.
“Baby’s got cataracts / Her coat was shining black,” he sings, sorrow dripping from his nasal tone. “Now it’s grey and patchy / The sunshine caught in her eyes is from a different time.” As the chorus charges into an emotional two-chord wallop, I instantly picture Luke—my childhood collie mix, a gentle friend who succumbed to cancer after a long life in the backyard. I think about his still eyes, our quiet goodbye hug on the rec-room floor. Sometimes the “anticipation of loss” is just as crippling as loss itself.
LOSE confronts that anxiety head-on, with striking resiliency. But it also explores “loss” from the opposite angle, as D’Agostino mourns his youth, his innocence—and his best friend and former bandmate, Ben High, who died suddenly from a heart-related condition in 2007. Powerful stuff—and it helps that LOSE is also a damn good rock album.
On 2011’s criminally underrated Lenses Alien, D’Agostino and company married math-y psych-rock with stoned, verbose poetry, alienating a large portion of their audience—and even themselves, as they attempted (and often failed) to make those tricky, turbulent songs hang together onstage. But LOSE—perhaps surprisingly, given its lyrical content—is their most celebratory work. The guitars feel ebullient, even when they’re spiraling into space (“Place Names”), with D’Agostino wrangling his words into strident, expressive choruses (the pogo-ing “Warning”).
It’s easy getting wrapped up in D’Agostino’s lyrics—pointillist fever dreams that mingle hazy memories of Ben (a trip to Six Flags gone wrong on the slow-building “Jackson,” the smell of a musty basement and a record store haunt on the punk-ish “XR”) with vivid high school character portraits (“2 Hip Soul”) and present-day ruminations on sex and death and radiation (the bratty, anthemic “LifeNet”). These details are so harrowing, it’s easy to lose sight of the album’s musical breadth: the fingerpicking and strings on “Child Bride,” the hobo harmonica on “XR,” the whiplash synth splashes on “Laramie.” It’s their most immediate album—but not necessarily their simplest.
LOSE spins out with the somber “2 Hip Soul,” a potpourri of sparkling windshield spit, swastikas carved in campground bark and strung-out rednecks clubbing ostriches at the zoo. It’s the least emotionally honest moment on the album, but D’Agostino still makes that weird mush sound profound. He has a real gift, and LOSE is the clearest proof yet: It’s an album of existential angst, but you emerge on the other side feeling less alone in the universe.