It takes a lot of something very special to allow a band like Cymbals Eat Guitars to accomplish that which they did on 2009’s Why There Are Mountains and what they do on Lenses Alien. The gestures that Megazord into the album are not unfamiliar: angry guitars, a rhythm section complimenting the melodic intent of a given song with fury or shimmer, heartstrong and yet strangely narrative vocal work, tight, concise songwriting and arrangement… It’s easy to dismiss the record as one we’ve heard before. In a lot of ways we have. Much of the guitarwork, in its asymmetry and hard edges, and song structures in their lurches and detours, recall (as the band as been accused by very nearly everyone) 90s indie rock titans like Pavement and Built to Spill. The vocal inflection and cadence of the record can’t help make the lines penned stick in the same way as, oh I don’t know, The Get-Up Kids or even Lifetime. But to start mentally filing, or calling names, takes away from the real question here: what is it that makes Lenses Alien a relentlessly beautiful album?
From the first couple bars of “Rifle Eyesight,” Lenses Alien establishes itself as a collection of songs that build upon themselves, exploding into second and third-stage engines garnished by flourishes of bells and piano. But the band isn’t content in allowing these tunes to climax out of control and fizzle into a drone of feedback; they don’t abandon the ship as it tears the atmosphere – the album’s drifting, understated moments serve as breathing room between monolithic hooks. And hooks there are plenty.
That is what makes Joseph D’Agostino such a superb vocalist: his verses move songs through the squall with a melodic bounce that renders the formal chorus pretty much unnecessary. This too is what makes a lot of the songs so fun. Too often in rock music, the vocals in a song fall into a couple uniform cadences and a couple verses and choruses, maybe a bridge, later the song is over. D’Agostino’s pummel forward, always with a feeling of linear purpose, but never betraying the songs with over-variation. They twist and evolve and never settle back to quite the same place, but are also never intrinsically different. And when the song, its lyrical and emotional center, spits in disgust or anger or disappointment, so too does D’Agostino. Vocal enactment of mood and attitude is perhaps the band’s greatest boon, and while many of the tunes feel like D’Agostino is telling us a story, we never really doubt that he’s in there somewhere.
That said, the album maintains an extremely high lyrical quality throughout, and displays a poetic sensibility that weds with the noise fantastically. On “Plainclothes” D’Agostino alternately whispers and howls, “The drug store smilers tower ten feet tall / over a maze of abandoned cars / Their cancelled eyes show through the holes in their sphinx masks / I scramble to the dunes to puke under the pale moon.” Whether the allusions to Saves The Day classic “Always Ten Feet Tall” and William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch (in “cancelled eyes”) may or may not be intentional, they work beautifully on their own and in serving to expand the images to include whole other universes of text. This isn’t easy to do well. And yet this is still a record largely about being young and fucked up, perhaps because you’ve always been young and fucked up. On the same track: “Dry mushrooms taste a lot like communion wafers / to see cathedral ships behind the Bucks County sky when I was thirteen.” The gorgeous “Wavelengths” has its own imagery, “Reborn in negatives of photos of dusk / regret so huge it’s on a phantom axis” but also the sort of humor that would make Stephen Malkmus proud: “It’s not about Satan or anything you just die / it’s weird.”
Maybe Lenses Alien isn’t an essential album. It isn’t perfect. The album loses a little steam around “The Current” and has to really work to gain back that momentum. But then again I don’t really think it ever tries to be anything important. This isn’t “Leaves of Grass,” this is a really banging collection by a poet honing his craft, still experimenting and learning and having fun. What can I say? It’s just a really fucking good rock album.