Album Review: Clap Your Hands Say Yeah - Hysterical

Hysterical has taken five years to materialize, and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah have only become tighter and more focused in that time.

B+ | 9.20.11 | Self-Released | Stream | MP3 | Vinyl | CD

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah - "Same Mistake" (mp3)

A herald of jangly guitars comes stampeding over the hills and skids to a halt in front of you, breathlessly announcing the imminent arrival of royalty. Before you know what’s happening, there’s a terrific explosion of a dance beat, and synthesisers rain down from the sky, thudding into the wet ground around your feet.

‘Same Mistake’ is nothing short of a declaration of war. In fact, the whole of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s new album Hysterical is. By starting the long-awaited comeback with such a colossal, life-affirming anthem, you can’t help but feel the band is making a statement: this isn’t the same quirky, D.I.Y. internet band that gave you the rough-and-ready playfulness of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and Some Loud Thunder. Hysterical has taken five years to materialise, and the band have only become tighter and more focused in that time. Listening to Alec Ounsworth repeat the words “on an open road” with heartbreaking conviction at the end of ‘Same Mistake’, I’m reminded of a Bob Dylan interview, in which he said of Modern Times: “Time Out Of Mind was me getting back in and fighting my way out of the corner. But by the time I made Love and Theft, I was out of the corner. On this record, I ain’t nowhere, you can’t find me anywhere, because I’m way gone from the corner.” The band has grown tired of being typecast, and Hysterical is the sound of it wriggling free from its shackles.

“Here comes the newest apparition to set fire to all the flowers”, howls Ounsworth at the start of title track ‘Hysterical’, and you can’t help but feel he’s referring to the album itself. It sounds like part two of ‘Same Mistake’ - just in case you thought it was bluffing, the band kicks everything up yet another gear, bombarding you with wah pedal, guitar licks and distorted bass.

Hysterical is a well-deserved title. Although it is by no means a confused or erratic album and actually feels a lot more restrained than their previous work, there is a definite sense of hysteria contained in the raw energy, passion and dedication present here. For the first time in his career, Ounsworth seems to have total confidence with his voice. It’s a masterful vocal display that doesn’t just balance upon, but spins and cartwheels across, the tightrope separating the tenderness of Belle and Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch, and the showmanship of The Killers’ Brandon Flowers.

It’s fascinating trying to decipher his lyrics. Instead of being overly confessional or abstractly poetic, they are cryptic in their triviality. Ounsworth’s words always seem to promise a story, and then tail off like the conclusion of a David Lynch film. As a result, some songs remain tantalisingly impenetrable yet offer the occasional gem. For instance, it is unclear what is happening around us when we are told in the sublime ‘Misspent Youth’: “The engine was not built to last. There’s a permanence to the memory of a bruise, and I still take it on the chin for you”, but like the morning after a night of heavy drinking, even though the recollection is unclear, we remain caked in a thick residue of emotion.

The band doesn’t quite manage to keep up the furious pace they set for themselves at the beginning, and unfortunately a couple of tracks fall short. The jauntiness of ‘Maniac’ and ‘Ketamine and Ecstacy’ feels slightly at odds. It’s not that they are badly written, but they lack the gravity contained in the other songs. A hyperactive light-heartedness makes them shine awkwardly, like b-sides better suited for a different record. ‘Into Your Alien Arms’ strikes a more appropriate chord, managing to be bright without undermining the overall tone of the album, much like some of The Cure’s more optimistic work.

The album’s production is possibly its greatest strength. Whereas the goal of the band’s first two records seemed to be a kind of organic looseness, the techniques used on Hysterical have given it the refined strength of a marble statue and the delicacy of stained glass. This is particularly evident in the second half of the album. ‘In A Motel’ is a haunting, self-deprecating reflection on loss and missed opportunity, reminiscent of early Radiohead: the chord changes are at once both nostalgic and creepy, and the double-tracked vocals and sparse arrangement of acoustic guitar and strings magnificently mirror and encourage the tone of the lyrics. ‘Idiot’ and ‘Siesta (For Snake)’ inhabit the other side of the scale – both are expansive, ambitious and hard-hitting, with multiple layers of instruments and overdubbed vocal harmonies creating lush, twinkly walls of sound. Images are conjured of swimming in clear, mountain lakes with one’s lover, darting under and hiding behind huge cascades of waterfall.

Hysterical is beautiful in its vulnerability. It may be anthemic and slick, but it never feels dishonest, instead sounding as if the band has finally decided which direction to take. The album does have its flaws, but these are small and forgivable when set beside its triumphs.

The band signs off with ‘Adam’s Plane’: a sprawling, Neutral Milk Hotel-esque epic. The switch is finally thrown to full-blown hysteria, the album careering from the desert highway, and veering off the side of a cliff in a freeze-frame ending. Any previous pattern that might have hinted at Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s destiny has been erased. I personally think they’re going to make it to the other side.

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah - Hysterical (Album Stream)