A triumphant and alive debut album born from the bleakest of experiences.
Mischa Pearlman 2012-02-28
Permeated by an abject sadness, this debut album from Brooklyn trio We Are Augustines is a musical diary from the dark, difficult days of frontman Billy McCarthy. Much of it is a response and reaction to his relationship with his late brother, a diagnosed schizophrenic who, after spending four years in solitary confinement at a prison, hanged himself while admitted to a psych hospital. Not only that, but, years before, when McCarthy was 19, his mother – who also suffered from schizophrenia – committed suicide through an overdose of painkillers and cocaine. If such tragedy seems eerily redolent of the life of Eels’ Mark Oliver Everett, then so is the influence of those events on Rise Ye Sunken Ships. It is, essentially, McCarthy’s own Electro-Shock Blues – a catalogue of his depression and his fight against it, and of the lacuna that the loss of his loved ones has left inside him.
If there’s any question as to the veracity of his pain, you need only listen to McCarthy’s vocals – throughout these 12 songs (bar final instrumental track, The Instrumental) it sounds like he’s struggling to get the words out, battling against an overwhelming urge to cry and is just about to lose. "I ain’t gonna wait around for some pill to gig in," his voice trembles on the climactic denouement to Headlong Into the Abyss, making clear just how deep that psychological chasm is. Opener Chapel Song details the ache of seeing the girl you still love walking down the aisle with somebody else; Augustine confronts his battle with depression ("Keep your head up, kid / I know you can swim but you gotta move your legs"); Book of James confronts the demons tormenting McCarthy in the wake of his brother’s death ("Just know we tried and you’re forgiven"). That crops up elsewhere, most explicitly on Philadelphia (City of Brotherly Love), Patton State Hospital and Juarez, but, really, his brother’s ghost haunts every facet of these songs, whether they’re directly about him or not.
If that sounds like heavy, difficult listening, it is. These songs tear the flesh from your bones with gentle devastation. But, in their tremulous, spirited delivery and their layered structures – at once sparse and orchestral – they also inspire a sense of hope for the future and a glimmer of redemption. It’s bombastic but it’s broken, anthemic yet withdrawn, extroverted yet timid and uncertain – think Bruce Springsteen at his most emotionally candid and cathartic but channelled through the broken bones of early Arcade Fire – and it serves as a hard-hitting reminder of the strength of the human spirit. "Everything dies, baby, that’s a fact," Springsteen himself told us on Atlantic City, but he countered that depressing fact with an wistful, uncertain wish, that "maybe everything that dies someday comes back." Rise Ye Sunken Ships is the embodiment of that thought – the phoenix rising from the flames, scarred yet triumphant, sad and solemn but alive.