Cymbals Eat Guitars is a “blog rock” survivor. Cymbals emerged in 2009 with Why There Are Mountains, the product of a bunch of high school buddies self-releasing a record without any expectations. But like so many bands that had that derisive term shoved upon it, the record caught on, hard and fast. At a time when Pitchfork christening an album as “Best New Music” could jumpstart a career, Cymbals had a windfall of attention. Then, like so many of its contemporaries, it stalled.
Why There Are Mountains’ follow-up, Lenses Alien, was not only ambitious, it was pulling from a completely different set of reference points than its predecessor. Where Mountains saw the band straight-up pulling riffs from Modest Mouse songs, Lenses Alien was prog rock by way of Cap’n Jazz. It was emo before that term was safe again, and Cymbals felt the shock. Crowds shrunk, and even Lose, the band’s majestic, heart-shaking 2014 album, couldn’t return the band to the stature it once had. But, through it all, bandleader Joseph D’Agostino refused to quit. Instead of putting the band on the shelf and calling it a day, he soldiered on, creating the band’s best album and suggesting it can be bigger than it ever was before.
Like every Cymbals record before it, the references to D’Agostino’s influences are clear on Pretty Years. He’s never been shy to crib notes from others, but it’s that amalgam (Built To Spill, Bruce Springsteen, a little bit of the Kinsellas) that amount to D’Agostino’s own voice. Pretty Years tosses all these things in a blender, along with a healthy dose of introspection, and what emerges is the band’s most nuanced, mature, and downright catchy record to date.
While “4th Of July, Philadelphia (Sandy)” is perhaps the most direct Springsteen reference on paper—with the album’s biggest hook to boot—it’s “Wish” that actually sounds like Springsteen in 1973. It’s got a huge blast of saxophone right up top, and D’Agostino puts on his smokiest voice as the song shuffles along. The aforementioned ode to Independence Day runs down a particularly dicey summer day for D’Agostino while offering a line that seems to sum up all of Pretty Years: “How many universes / Am I alive and dead in?”
Lyrically, Pretty Years is far more joyous than Lose, a record dedicated to the death of D’Agostino’s high school friend, but Pretty Years is about how his band narrowly avoided that outcome. Cymbals could have died many times over—due to members leaving and critical praise not always translating to ticket sales—but it gives the band a reason to celebrate. Pretty Years is joyous, revelatory, and the moment where the varied sounds of those past three records all come together.