Cargo Collective Title
Format: LP, Pink Vinyl, Limited to 500 copies
Label: Tough Love
Cat no: TLV166LPX
As the front person of celebrated indie band Cymbals Eat Guitars, guitarist and singer Joseph D’Agostino spent over a decade setting autobiographical, emotionally vivid lyrics against a backdrop of soaring and compositionally ambitious rock. After four critically acclaimed LPs that solidified D’Agostino’s reputation as a gifted songwriter, he chose to break from his long-term band and debut a new project: Empty Country. On 2020’s self-titled debut, D’Agostino’s storytelling lens shifted away from personal narrative and toward fiction; psychopaths, apparitions and deplorables populated a bleak and uncanny parallel version of American dystopia. Empty Country’s sprawling and sonically adventurous arrangements—filled out by collaborating musicians including Rachel and Zoë Browne (Field Mouse), Kyle Gillbride (Swearin’), Zena Kay (Angel Olsen), and former CEG drummer Charlotte Anne Dole - ranged from luminous jangle-pop to scorching emo-punk to narcotized Americana. Though the pandemic curtailed planned touring, a seven-piece iteration of the band played one packed Brooklyn show in May 2022, supported by Charles Bissell (The Wrens) and Field Mouse; Empty Country also backed Bissell on several classics from The Meadowlands. “It was a wonderful return to live music for all of us,” says D’Agostino. “So many folks reached out to me and told me how Empty Country offered them comfort during those first several months of being stuck inside. I’m happy that it came out and connected with some people and that I was able to establish this universe I could continue to build on.”
Empty Country II, the project’s second full-length, is a thrilling expansion of that world. D’Agostino pushed himself to new places as a songwriter, crafting a collection of short stories set to music that grapple with the biggest questions now hanging over America - gun violence, the addiction epidemic, and generational hopelessness among them. In 2020, he’d moved from Philadelphia to small-town New England to be closer to family, and his new locale, coupled with the dread of lockdown, inspired him to return to the haunted world from the first LP. “It’s pretty jarring to leave a city—where you can safely assume you’re aligned with your neighbors on many political and social issues - for somewhere more rural and conservative,” says D’Agostino, noting the Trump flags and Blue Lives Matter hood wraps that dot his new dirt road residence. Across the new album’s nine tracks, D’Agostino introduces us to a bevy of characters: three generations of West Virginia clairvoyants, crushed by the weight of their secret knowledge; a group of drag queens and misfits in early ‘80s New York City; a pill mill doctor’s daughter who dabbles in necromancy; a convicted killer; a bullied kid injured and alone in the forest as night falls. Through the stories of these characters, Empty Country II delivers an engaging and deeply moving rumination on time, family, and the disintegration of America.
Though Empty Country II is a record about the forces that drive Americans apart, it’s also imbued with empathic love and an understanding of what binds people to family and country—in spite of the darknesses we encounter. The concept of a Great American Rock Album might scan as outdated in 2023, but with this sprawling and uncompromising epic, D’Agostino and Empty Country shatter ambivalence and confront the horrors with a community-minded sense of cautious optimism. “We may be staring into an abyss,” says D’Agostino. “But we’re all staring together.”
For fans of Silver Jews, Pixies, Husker Du, Wilco, Pavement, Superchunk, Modest Mouse