What are we to make of the world? In many ways, the title New Fragility perfectly sums up our collective state of unease and anxiety, but it’s particularly apt for singer-songwriter Alec Ounsworth / Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, and the trauma he’s spent the best part of three years processing. “It’s pretty personal,” says Ounsworth. “It’s about what I think we’re all experiencing at the moment, certainly here in the United States anyway – trying to move forward amidst an almost cruel uncertainty.”
Taken from the David Foster Wallace short story “Forever Overheard,” from the collection Brief Interviews With Hideous Men – “You have grown into a new fragility,” says the story’s adolescent narrator – the title track documents what happens directly after a long relationship comes to an end, and what’s discovered soon after. “There comes a period of making up for lost time in a changed world,” says Ounsworth, “and now is a time of predictable stupidity.”
New Fragility finds Ounsworth asking the questions that haunt us all. Depression, divorce, getting older, and confronting the past are all raked over, as are the early years of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and the pernicious influence of fame. And with such heartfelt lyrics married to his unique, eclectic music and distinctive voice, it’s another classic entry in the career of one of independent music’s brightest, and most durable, artists.
“I never want to take another chance on anyone”, Ounsworth laments over a steady chug of muted guitar chords, delicate piano, and bustling drums. “I can’t believe the things I do to myself”. It’s a song that takes a long, hard look at itself in the mirror and doles out some uncomfortable truths. Yet it also showcases what Ounsworth has become so masterful at – couching a certain level of seriousness in something fun. Something danceable. It’s what’s powered some of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s most memorable moments, and what makes New Fragility such an accomplished, affecting record.
Powerful too, taking aim at what Ounsworth calls “the failed democratic experiment that is the United States of America” and the supine hypocrisy of those currently in government. The first singles taken from New Fragility, the double A-side of “Hesitating Nation” and “Thousand Oaks,” are deeply political, charting the decline of a nation. On the former, over quietly picked guitar and static chords, Ounsworth decries state-sponsored pollution and the ubiquity of advertising, bemoaning our always on, always hustling culture.
“These songs are politically motivated, which is unusual for me,” Ounsworth says of “Hesitating Nation’”and “Thousand Oaks”. “The only other politically motivated song I’ve written is ‘Upon This Tidal Wave of Young Blood’.” That track helped launch their landmark self-titled debut back in 2005. And now, after 15 years, eight further records, Ounsworth felt compelled to once again tackle politics, and what’s happening in the US indicating how serious he believes the situation to be.
But it’s “Thousand Oaks,” written in response to the fatal mass shooting at the Borderline Bar And Grill in Thousand Oaks, California, on November 7, 2018, where Ounworth’s anger reaches a fever pitch. “I was watching an interview with Susan Orfanos, who lost her son,” says Ounsworth. “It was difficult to watch, and left me heartbroken for her and infuriated that so little has been done about gun control in the United States. The tragedy of this case is also that this particular shooting seemed almost ‘forgettable’, insofar as so many people have become inured and apathetic to such events.” The soaring chorus and the melodic chug of Ounsworth’s guitar provide a stark contrast to lines that drip with fury and rage.
New Fragility is not without moments of beauty though. “Innocent Weight,” the first time Ounsworth has employed a string quartet, is a fragile, plaintive ballad that frames the dissolution of a relationship in heart-breaking terms (“I don’t know what I’ve done wrong”). Ditto the wondrously sad “Mirror Song,” which combines piano and toy piano to great effect, and deconstructs the pressure of touring, the perils of self-medication, and questioning one’s motives for pursuing music as a career. “The guilt about having so much opportunity but feeling empty inside is not easy to reconcile,” explains Ounsworth. “I’m mostly over it now.”
Trace the arc of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s evolution and it shows an accomplished musician and composer sounding ever more confident, constantly refining and broadening his sound and indulging an ever wider set of influences. Few have been as consistently brilliant, eclectic, and intimate; fewer still have done so while being defiantly, 100% independent, refusing to sign deals that compromise artistic vision. New Fragility is a continuation of this, yet it also stands apart as one his strongest collection of songs yet.
Personal yet universal, New Fragility confronts numerous modern ills. “Where They Perform Miracles,” a song concerning spirituality and alternative methods of healing, harks back to Ounsworth’s time as an anthropology student doing fieldwork in Mexico, while “Dee, Forgiven” is an intimate look at what harm anxiety, and the over-prescription of certain medication, has on the vitality of youth. The song contains one of Ounsworth’s strongest vocals yet – a quivering beacon that shifts from a wail to a low grumble in the blink of an eye, a remarkable expressive instrument that sits perfectly amid the understated orchestration. For 15 years, it’s been one of music’s most distinctive voices, and it’s never sounded as rich or poised.
Together with his keen ear for melody and his unique, eclectic approach to composition – witness the gentle acoustic picking of “Where They Perform Miracles,” the spacious strings and woozy synths of “CYHSY, 2005,” or the rambling, slowed down bar-room blues of album closer “If I Were More Like Jesus” – New Fragility is the sound of an artist completely at ease in his work, and unafraid to confront the difficult questions that haunt us all.
“And I’m climbing this ladder / My head in the clouds”, he sings on the latter. “I hope that it matters.” As a metaphor for his career to date (and also an inside joke — borrowing this lyric directly from Neil Young’s “Borrowed Tune”), it is pretty perfect – the dreamer, forever chasing his muse and musical inspiration. New Fragility is simply the latest chapter, and another classic entry in the canon of one of independent music’s brightest, and most durable, artists.
New Fragility will be released on CYHSY/Secretly Distribution. The album was produced by Alec Ounsworth, with additional production from Will Johnson, recorded by Britton Beisenherz in Austin, TX and mixed by John Agnello in New Jersey, mastered by Greg Calbi.