It's hard to know where to begin with Clap Your Hands Say Yeah's third album. The conventional narrative up until now reads that the band sprung out of internet fame, a DIY aesthetic almost synonymous with their debut- and seemingly everyone was an overnight fan. The jangly, retro-infused, charming and defiant songs of their eponymous start united the entire indie scene in appraisal, much in the same way a Tumblr-borne artist like The Weeknd aims for now. But in 2005, weren't we all that bit more naïve? The band seemingly second-guessed the audience backlash with their follow up record, the 'difficult second album' monicker being more appropriate of an audience expectation than the band's composition. Some Loud Thunder was to some, unlistenable- but this reviewer found it to be a rewarding album of hidden depths and studio trickery. Yeah, that bass was consistently fuzzing, the drums were awkwardly panned and as far as I can tell, the vinyl and CD have different versions of the title track- but can't some mistakes be deliberate? That it came wrapped in so many interviews, vocalist Alex Ounsworth telling half-believable yarns that he never listened to music produced after 1980, that vinyl was his mantra- the album might have made you work for it, infinitely more than their debut (a record which dared you not to like it)- but it was overwhelmingly composed, its confusing studio mix clearly deliberate.
If Some Loud Thunder led some of their fanbase up the garden path, then Hysterical could be considered an even more disturbing WTF moment. From the moment it starts spinning, you are made aware of something different here. Namely, it sounds fantastic. Not in a compelling, interesting, sucks you in and can't get it out of your head way, but rather in studio sound. Everything is well mixed, well recorded- this is the sound of the professional recording industry, of money and 'maximising' technique behind each note- it could be a Kings of Leon record for chrissakes. This is all down to the hiring of St Vincent producer John Congleton- but frankly it comes across in an instant like a disavowal of everything the band have stood for. So their first record was marked by whimsey and charm, and the second was criticised for being too esoteric and bloody minded- but to my mind, the manner in which to respond to such criticisms is not by becoming the most arena-rock sounding, mainstream version of yourselves that you can be. It's like they're negating all that made them unique in the first place, and in doing so- you're left wondering whether you only ever liked them for their quirkiness, or whether the songs held true.
Fortunately, I firmly believe in the latter. I only have to remember old numbers like 'Tidal Wave of Young Blood' and 'Yankee Go Home' and I'm smiling giddily. Even the stronger moments from this record, like 'Ketamine and Ecstasy' or 'The Witness' Dull Surprise' find themselves drowned out in a sea of mediocrity. It's as if the album's sonic mastery undoes the possibility of anything truly becoming memorable here. It all bleeds together, and the band sound as if they're going through the motions. And I realise that it's unfair to review an album by comparing it to previous works, that an album should be reviewed on its own strengths and weaknesses- but Hysterical sounds so 'post' its preceding works, so conscious of the (unfair) criticisms that followed Some Loud Thunder, that it rarely has opportunity to exist in its own space.
For me, the biggest question is why we ended up here. Clap Your Hands took a five year hiatus, a soul-searching mission, and this album was preceded with the inevitable PR that the band had discovered themselves, found their sound, etc. But if this is the sound of the band being true to themselves, then the album makes it abundantly clear what a dull and disappointing prospect that is.
First published in the405