Its title taken from a short story by New York author David Foster Wallace, Alec Ounsworth’s sixth album as Clap Your Hands Say Yeah finds him emerging from the trauma of divorce and depression to survey an America he no longer understands. “I think it’s probably important to get a little lost in the woods before coming out again,” Ounsworth explains of the painful aftermath in which he wrote New Fragility. He’s spot on, because that lost period has yielded a considered, expansively crafted album that’s among the best he’s ever made.
At times, the swirling organs, ringing Americana guitars and driving rhythms evoke the sort of tasteful, widescreen adult-oriented rock purveyed by The War On Drugs; elsewhere, the tenor is far more sparse and cathartic, Ounsworth’s wavering, reedy warble at its most vulnerable as he tackles both personal pain and a sense of exasperation at his nation’s freefall into political polarisation. It’s in those more tender, earnest moments that this album really strikes home. It’s a long distance from the quirky indie-disco appeal of CYHSY’s debut, still by far their most celebrated LP, yet one Ounsworth has dismissed as “not my favourite”.
New Fragility was preceded by the double A-side release of Hesitating Nation and Thousand Oaks, the opening two tracks here. The former is a relentless procession of memories and ruminations, delivered over understated, thoughtful guitar work. Ounsworth gets the difficult questions out in the open early as he asks, “Who are we to go and make big plans?/ Married in a fever, children in a panic”. The sense of remorse is palpable.
The flip side, Thousand Oaks, is the record’s least personal song, addressing not Ounsworth’s own heartbreak but the spiralling epidemic of firearms deaths in the US. Inspired by an interview with Susan Orfanos, whose son Telemachus was killed in the 2018 Borderline shooting, it’s only the second overtly political song in the band’s catalogue after Iraq war critique Upon This Tidal Wave Of Young Blood from their debut album. It’s brilliantly anthemic with a chugging rhythm, call and response trills and a superb classic-rock chorus that tips its hat to Bruce Springsteen.
After that emphatic opening, the sonic framework becomes more sparing, the mood more contemplative. The slow-waltzing Dee, Forgiven, all heavy acoustic strums and smoky harmonica adornments, is a lovely slice of yearning, sad poetry, Ounsworth sounding bruised and battered, “breathing in the morning with cocaine’s wooden stare,” using his guitar as a tool to conjure ghostly atmospherics.
These are songs with grander horizons than anything Ounsworth has penned before. A string quartet appears for the first time on the title track’s sorrowful, elegant prequel, Innocent Weight. It’s one of the most accomplished things the Philadelphia-born songwriter has ever put his name to, and it’s also home to the most enthralling solo on the record, a sizzling take teetering constantly on the edge of boiling over into feedback.
Lyrically, too, this is a writer at the peak of his powers. “There’s something familiar in the way that you stapled my wrists to the floor/ but I cannot put my finger on it,” he cries on that same song, finding black humour in the most unhappy circumstances. He threatens for a moment to give in to the temptation of grandiosity as a snare beat builds irresistibly, but the end is sudden, replaced by the beatific minimalism of delicate piano ballad Mirror Song. A candid Ounsworth, afforded space to breathe, addresses his past self, not for the only time on New Fragility, at the height of his band’s fame. Returning home from a European festival appearance, he stares into his soul and finds only guilt for feeling so empty. “For a while there I had nearly tricked myself into believing I had some kind of choice,” he concludes weightily.
Strings sweep through the sonically lighter CYHSY, 2005 as Ounsworth admits “All I really wanted to do was stay home”, revealing both the toll taken by his past and a sense of nostalgia for it. Where They Perform Miracles was born on the road, too, inspired by a visit to a shaman on the outskirts of Mexico City. Rising steadily from acoustic guitar and swelling organ chords, it’s the kind of slow-building, cinematic melancholia produced so deftly in recent years by alt-country artists such as Strand Of Oaks and Jason Isbell, a lonesome harmonica and resplendent tremolo-soaked chords decorating the spacious environs.
The soul searching reaches a peak on the closing piano confessional If I Were More Like Jesus, perhaps a reach too far into self-examination, Ounsworth’s voice weathered and coated in distortion. But it’s evident that the time spent lost in the woods has served Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s creator and last survivor well. He’s obviously suffered these past three years, but the scars left by those experiences have helped him make his most emotionally mature, affecting record to date.