In 2012 Augustines released their debut album, the emotionally raw, defiantly anthemic Rise Ye Sunken Ships. A record torn from vocalist/guitarist Billy McCarthy’s experiences with an alcoholic mother and a recently deceased brother, it was a tough, jagged listen made irresistible by its sweeping openness and epic instrumentation.
Having added British drummer Rob Allen to their line-up (alongside McCarthy’s long-time bandmate, multi-instrumentalist Eric Sanderson) the Brooklynites have toured the world in support of that record, now returning with producer Peter Katis (who twiddled both Alligator and Boxer for The National) to offer us a self-titled follow-up.
There are few bands that make a logical step forward from their first to second records, particularly not blue-collar rock bands, so often dismissed for stagnation and a lack of ambition, yet that is precisely what Augustines have done here with a knee-buckling power, and jaw-dropping grace.
The album’s working title (and the one they should have stuck with) Now You Are Free gives you a very clear idea of what kind of fists in the air, teary eyed but smiling, booze-beaten rock and roll you are about to be given and here we get exactly that and then a full, hard-won stretch more.
From the first “WOOAAH-OH-OH” of ‘Cruel City’ - a head-bobbing hotplate of primal beats and sand-grain vocals among which glisten glockenspiel jewels and a beyond-sad “I still reach for you in the dark” refrain - we know we’re stood deep in the swamps of Springsteen, but while some will rush to make comparisons to the glib Gaslight Anthem or perhaps the boysy boozey bar-rap of The Hold Steady, Augustines share neither the former’s sense of self-regard nor the latter’s cliquey cool. What they do share with Craig Finn’s crew, though, is a seemingly undefeatable sense of hope, an almost tear-pricking optimism.
On songs like ‘Don’t You Look Back’, where hesitant barre chords and widescreen organ give way to McCarthy’s throat-shredding voice, “Something’s missing, something’s wrong”, in a town where “they’ll all drink themselves to death”. The song strides away from the misery, pale-skinned but reaching for the sun, tethered to reality but gnawing its way through the ropes and crawling through the beer-bottle broken glass to freedom – “We’ve got to get out of this” McCarthy screams and follows with another righteous howl. It’s exhilarating to an almost physical degree.
Similarly empowering is the melodious ‘Kid You’re On Your Own’, seemingly a lecture in song from McCarthy to himself in light of his losses which also serves as a kind of ‘I Will Survive’ in the third person. “Come back! Come back!” he shouts into the abyss and observes “Everyone you love slips through your hands like sand”. But the way Katis opens the song up, building and building as instinctively as the band themselves to the now inevitable crushing, crashing chorus, makes it feel like a statement of bravery rather than one of misery or complaint.
There’s always the glimmer of a future in these songs, as on the soft-brush shuffle of ‘Weary Eyes’, it’s titular refrain puncturing a tale of misplaced nostalgia (“Park the car in front of your house, I still can’t get out”) and addiction (“You’re cleaned up now and I hope it works out”), the three note piano-line leading us to the key line “We can fix ourselves” and a wordless trail-out that judders and sighs, unimaginably uplifting, tagged like a love note on a cork board.
These wordless, rising shouts and gang-chants are literally all over the record and while the cynical might see this as a grab for the old Arcade Fire dollar or a rush to the stadium doors, cap in hand, with Augustines it comes across as absolutely genuine. It simply seems that when words don’t quite express how it feels to be right there in the place they’re in, only a scream will do. It’s disarmingly heartfelt and lacks pretension and self-awareness to an almost embarrassing degree.
By the time you reach the song ‘Now You Are Free’ the message could not be any clearer “You gotta let go, let go of all your loss” McCarthy implores us, implores himself before the bold admission: “What am I running from? Myself and everyone”. Strings swell, Katis sucking the oxygen from the track before allowing it to explode; and when it does it goes off like a fucked rocket.
Elsewhere lay the stunning, falsetto-led ‘Walkabout’ and the loop-based hymnal ‘This Ain’t Me’ with it’s desperate insistence “I can change, I can change, I can change” and late highlight ‘The Avenue’ that leans on a low cello to declare “You haven’t seen all the good inside me yet” – a statement it’s easy to believe true of the band itself.
What Augustines manage here is an incredibly rare trick – massive, instantly accessible rock music that has no cynicism or pomposity, that has ballast without bombast, honesty without mawkishness, skyscraping sounds without self-importance. That they draw from a palette of sounds that straight-up rock bands often shy away from, turning to sequencers, percussion, brass and minimal strings as often as bass, guitar and drums is also in their favour, almost to the point of embarassment.
Augustines is a record that was born to run, taking hearts along with it as it goes, and is, to these ears, one of the great rock records of recent years. It’s exciting to have a band like this, with a future as bright, battling the negativity, kicking against the horror, surging towards glory.
9Matthew Slaughter's Score