Reviewed by: Max Miller
Until now, I have never listened to an entire Clap Your Hands Say Yeah album. I am, however, familiar with the general story of the band, seeing as it’s so prevalent in the half-gazillion nostalgic odes written to the “blog-rock” era, which peaked about a decade ago. In short: Band self-releases album. Bloggers go nuts. Mainstream catches on, record deals and late-night show spots rain down from the heavens. Band releases follow-up and are held to an unfairly high standard. Band fades into comfortable obscurity, followed only by their most diehard fans (which, curiously, rarely include those original bloggers who pushed them into the spotlight, said bloggers having moved on to newer, trendier pastures).
The narrative is so familiar and yet non-specific that I didn’t realize until The Tourist came across my plate that CYHSY had released not two, but four albums before it. I had assumed that after the ho-hum reception of Some Loud Thunder they packed it in and called it a day. It turns out they’ve been trucking along diligently, dropping albums every three or four years. As such, rather than saddle the band with the baggage of their past, as I’m sure happens to them far too often, I have decided to think about The Tourist as if it were completely divorced from the past. Nothing could possibly live up to the manufactured hype of their 2005 self-titled debut, so it only seems fair to discard that lens entirely.
To be clear, I’ve been referring to CYHSY as a band this whole time, but on The Tourist, the only member remaining is frontman/guitarist/keyboardist Alec Ounsworth. The album’s press release notes that he recorded the album with “a drummer and bassist,” the anonymity here implying that this album is closer to a solo album than anything else. Ounsworth noted that he wanted to do more lyrically on The Tourist, inspired in part by Elvis Costello and Paul Simon. Simon’s influence can be felt particularly on opener “The Pilot,” although not necessarily lyrically. Instead, the soaring vocal pads that cloud the song in an ethereal beauty are reminiscent of Simon and Garfunkel’s impeccable “The Only Living Boy In New York.” Interestingly, the instrument taking the lead on much of the song is the bass, played tastefully by that anonymous bassist.
Ounsworth’s lyrics certainly do seem focused, though, with verbose phrasing laced with internal rhymes making up many of his verses. On the ominous “Down (Is Where I Want To Be),” he sings, in what I can only assume is a satiric send-up of an all-too-common mentality in these times, “You’re out of luck, kid / Use your sense / You can’t expect the government to lend you a hand / Who am I to sympathize when down is where I wanna be?” He actually repeats the “down” several times before the line segues into a sinister-yet-bouncy post-punk bass line. In the driving “Better Off,” he references Lou Reed’s “Vicious” over another woozy soundscape held together by pulsing drums. Ounsworth’s shoegaze-y guitar lines suggest the influence of The War On Drugs (or, perhaps, just the influence of every band who influenced The War On Drugs).
There is an ethereal sameness to many of the songs on The Tourist. Some tend to blend together like pretty aural wallpaper. However, this fault does help the more grabbing tracks stand out all the more. Take, for example, the groovy “Fireproof,” which kicks off the record’s b-side, or the folksy “Loose Ends” and “Visiting Hours,” which find Ounsworth plucking prettily at his acoustic guitar.
On the whole, The Tourist is a focused, immaculately-produced album. Although it mostly keeps to one main sonic palette, Ounsworth tends to the dynamics of his songs attentively, and his sprawling lyrical hooks offer something for listeners to come back to. Although I’ve attempted to think of this album in a vacuum, the task is somewhat impossible. I can’t help but find myself wondering whether, if this were an unknown debut and blogs still held the sway they once did in 2005, the overnight success story of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah would repeat itself. I’m sure it’s something Ounsworth still thinks about, too. In the end, though, there’s no use in making these cross-continuum comparisons. The Tourist is an admirable document of where Ounsworth is today, and that should be enough.