One of the unique features of this late stage of Obama's America has been the emergence of the prefacing phrase, “Let me be clear”. Almost always followed by a string of equivocations and prevarications, conditional phrases and lists of exceptions, this supposed clarity represents something of the lyrical poetic tick to bring coherence to an incoherent age, a rhetorical security blanket for performer and audience. CYMBALS encounter this schismatic gap in meaning directly, a band for whom the double entendre held in their very name makes them both a part of a drum kit and a representation of something else – arguably their best live moment must be, “Hello, we are CYMBALS”, as they wink to each other internally, unacquainted audience members thinking, “Symbols for what?”.
Appropriately, the band dubbed their latest LP, The Age of Fracture, reflecting this tectonic crush and slip of meaning and intent in what you might well call This Modern Age. The record's title comes from a recent book by Princeton professor Daniel T. Rodgers, proving a literacy and a polemical approach to the treatment of the complexity here; even in naming it The Age of Fracture, we give meaning to the meaningless, a unique discernible quality to the cypher, the unknowable knowable. This last bit represents the ambition, success and failure of The Age of Fracture, to turn up the synthesizers and drum machines, saying “This is all so complicated” and “Who cares?” in the same moment.
Some of the incoherence is intentionally authored, a framing device for the allegedly unframeable. The opening track, “Winter '98”, which passes for Blair-Clinton era nostalgia here, wakes to cocktail party crowd noise, a light cacophony of human voices before icy synthesizers wash in with the tide. The signal arises from the noise, or so, I suspect, the band would like us to believe. The lyrics are, of course, in French, lest we think CYMBALS was going to play us straight from the outset. The song evolves into a dance floor burner, meditative in moments and featuring bombastic, echoing synth stabs at others. Stylistically, it draws a great deal from the Hot Chip catalogue, a buzzing second movement that collapses the listener into a sea of elevating synths and flickering, dancey guitars. It sets up second track, the album's stand out, “The Natural World”, a squealing, post-Passion Pit jam that soars to the top of the room on the back of tweaking keyboards and vocalist Jack Cleverly's (his real name) upper register effort. It isn't quite “Sleepyhead” circa 2008, but as Cleverly sings, “We can hear the passing of time”, the listener considers the nearly six-minute run time of “The Natural World”, an amazing bout of attention span in the Age of ADHD. Depth might be cast as panacea here, lyrics like, “I don't know enough about you/to be kind to you” and “Just don't argue, just keep talking”. Cleverly seems to suppose that in addition to dancing ourselves clean, we need to engage one another, the dirty, long form work of developing empathy in the Age of the Self.
The middle of the record proves unintentionally uneven, a different and less pleasing fracture. This isn't the Age of Anything, other than the Odd Artistic Decision. The authored incoherence of the album's first four tracks is lost in the actual incoherence of the combination of the trying “The 5%”, attempted pseudo-eponymous interlude, “The Fracture of Age” and the especially audacious Depeche Mode rip, “Like An Animal”. This last track runs nearly nine-minutes, a listless New Order-inspired backbeat providing the only structure to a messy discussion of the value of the immediate. It is this type of disjoint, the immensely long song about the power of Right Now, where the listener debates whether CYMBALS is in on their own joke. Salvaging this empty center, the band returns to form on “Erosion”, a track that opens with a looping half-human synthesizer sound. Footnoting New Order in pleasing fashion here, CYMBALS follow a plaintive bass line on a song that could just as easily be called “Isolation”.
The final three tracks, united in a two-word syllabic rhythm, “This City”, “The End”, and “Call Me”, salvage the big idea of the album. On “The End”, which is, of course, not the end, Cleverly offers lyrics like, “I don't know the first thing about you / I don't really know you that way / I just get this feeling from dancing” before taking the listener through the end of the night, the time where the lights come on and the music shuts off. This is the essence of the best of The Age of Fracture: We don't need to know anything about each other, we can know one another viscerally. This type of dancefloor epistemology removes the fraught, anxious and shifting currents of our epoch. CYMBALS makes this argument well by the end of The Age of Fracture. Their final twist, if each time we consider these destructive schizophrenic impulses of this era, we instead reclaim our ability to know ourselves and know each other, then this is the freedom of the dancefloor; this is the value of a synthesizer record three decades after the emergence of some of the best synthesizer albums. This is the liberation of living in the Age of Whatever You Say It Is.