Following the warm reception and success of their self-titled debut Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s only consistent thread seemed to be their ability to disappoint. Record after record was received with less reverence than the last. Throughout their subsequent albums the band shed members at a rate of knots, with drummer Sean Greenhalgh eventually also jumping ship in 2014. So the fifth CYHSY record is a bit of a miracle really, and one that finds front man Alec Ounsworth the only original member. Happily, flying solo seems to have done him the world of good – The Tourist is quite simply the best CYHSY record since their 2005 debut.
That’s not to say that The Tourist marks any great musical progression, or that it matches the strange excitement of their first record. But it is Ounsworth’s most consistent outing and the strongest set of tunes he has produced since then. Vanity Of Trying is one of the most immediately striking tracks. Its sharp beat and propulsive melody lead into a chorus that confesses, “I’ve been looking for easy solutions,” then hopefully claims, “We can be whatever, whatever, whatever we want.” And it’s a case of CYHSY at their most captivating, going on to break into a soaring, slightly psychedelic, middle eight that decries the painful “vanity of trying” then comes back stronger than before. It’s a reminder of why people fell for them in the first place.
Lyrically the album is dominated by a shaky unease. Ounsworth has described how he made the record at a particularly difficult time in his life, and that it was a cathartic process. It’s not hard to detect such difficulties in lyrics that posit “better off lonely/better this than nothing.” The quietly wistful The Pilot is peppered with insecurities, and his reluctance to play the front man: “I get up to be the tourist/but am I the pilot?” He also appears to be confronting his own shortcomings through these troubles with honest self-awareness: “You play the victim/And I’ll play the blind man.”
Possibly the most striking thing about The Tourist is the degree of feeling on the record. There was a collective thread through tracks like Upon This Tidal Wave of Young Blood, and its perversely long repetition of “child stars,” but this time it’s largely personal, and certainly the most emotionally resonant set of songs Ounsworth has produced. Hitherto CYHSY’s music has alway had an underlying sense of being self-consciously knowing, but songs like A Chance To Cure feel genuine as he sings, “I can’t help that it’s snowing/I tried to break your fall.” This openness is mirrored musically on Down (Is Where I Wanna Be), where the sense of losing control is matched by the rhythmical whir that whips up into a feverish crescendo married with lyrical disquiet.
Vocally none of Ounswroth’s marmite-like whine has mellowed with time. You’ll either love it or vehemently dislike it. He sounds like David Byrne’s petulant offspring, which is a surprisingly effective tool for emotion and borderline hysteria. In more general terms, there is nothing on this record that is going to convert the previously disinterested. But although Ounsworth is still yet to return to the high watermark of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s first record, he has produced his most affecting work since then. In spite of his wavering reluctance, he is the pilot once again, and it shows.