Clap Your Hands Say Yeah blew a lot of minds when they released a fully independent self-titled first album in 2005. They had no record label, no manager, no nothing, and at a time when even “indie” bands were signing to major labels, it seemed like Alec Ounsworth and Co. were doubling down on the DIY ethic of the ’80s underground. That’s not so rare nowadays: The digital revolution, or whatever it is, has made it easier than ever to put out music without the usual intermediaries.
Though Clap Your Hands Say Yeah was certainly on the leading edge of all that, Ounsworth has mixed feelings about his role, and a whole lot of other things, besides. They’re the basis for New Fragility, the band’s latest album, which includes songs reflecting on the buzz that overtook Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and the effects it has had on Ounsworth’s life. New Fragility parses trauma, both his own and the more general effects of late capitalism and the ongoing collapse of American democracy.
If that sounds like heavy going, Ounsworth makes it worth the ride. The group is basically a one-man vehicle now, and his core collaborators here are ex-Centro-matic leader Will Johnson on drums and Britton Beisenherz on bass. Ounsworth is more thoughtful than polemical on songs with rich musical arrangements, including a string quartet that lends a mournful air to “Innocent Weight.” The default mood throughout is melancholy, but even when his anger shines through, Ounsworth couches it in pungent imagery that feels righteous and personal, rather than prescriptive. “We’ve become the world’s first millionaires,” he sings on opener “Hesitating Nation,” his voice breaking in that distinctive way of his. “You know, the ones who just don’t care.” The song is a bleak assessment of modern American culture, driven by an urgent beat that builds into a bold lead guitar line.
That’s not the only track that casts an acrid gaze on the ways in which Americans fail each other. “Thousand Oaks” is about the November 2018 mass shooting at a bar in the California city by that name, and Ounsworth’s voice rings out above guitars, keyboards and a steady beat. He sounds despairing as he describes the empty gesture of sending thoughts and prayers instead of taking meaningful action to prevent tragedies that have become numbingly commonplace.
More often, though, Ounsworth is sifting through the past 15 years of his own life, which have included marriage, fatherhood, divorce and an uneasiness with his public persona. The strings on “Innocent Weight” frame a melancholy reflection on a relationship gone bust, and the turbulence of his broken heart comes through in a spray of noisy guitar that enters halfway through the song. Elsewhere, “CYHSY 2005” sounds almost celebratory, with orchestrations anchoring a big, open arrangement full of atmospheric synths and guitars. The title is a reference to the band’s origins, but the track isn’t as buoyant as it seems: Ounsworth is torn by the competing demands of leading a touring band on an upward trajectory and his desire to just stay home.
The conflict is never really resolved, in the song or in the singer’s life. For all his doubts and misgivings, though, Ounsworth makes the best of things on New Fragility. Early in the band’s career, hype around the ancillary DIY stuff tended to overshadow the actual music. By this point, the hipster accolades have become more muted, with the result that the actual songs shine through more than they used to. This batch is as tuneful and accessible as anything Ounsworth has written so far.
Eric R. Danton has been contributing to Paste since 2013, and writing about music and pop culture for longer than he cares to admit. Follow him on Twitter or visit his website.