Empath songs are messy and proud of it. Sometimes it feels as if all four of the band’s members are playing different songs at once, until they agree to get along and coalesce into something spectacular. Their songs can sound muddy and indistinguishable on first pass, but repeated listens unlock all of the intricately moving parts. Soon enough you’re grasping the music’s internal logic, bracing for the parts where it all comes together. The band is intentional in its sloppiness. They know how to work their way up to those indelible moments, frothing around before giving in and pummeling into a hook that’s sticky-sweet and serrated.
Empath have been at this for a while, and on their new album Visitor they sound better than ever. The group started as a trio — Catherine Elicson, Jem Shanahan, and Garrett Koloski — and in 2016 they released some commanding lo-fi blasts called Crystal Reality, recorded in a house in Philadelphia where you can actually hear the instruments bouncing off the walls back at them. It wouldn’t be until 2018, when they added keyboardist Randall Coon to their ranks, that they would reach their full potential. On the compact, compressed, and invigorating Liberating Guilt And Fear, the band offered up three tumultuous pop songs followed by one sprawling, meditative ramble. That would serve as the blueprint for their first full-length, 2019’s Active Listening: Night On Earth, which jutted tight structures against freeform atmosphere filled with birdsong and open air. The band’s affinity for New Age-y acoustics is a stark contrast to the anarchy that they are capable of conjuring up, which is downright anti-zen.
They switch up tempos and break out into splattered bursts of noise without warning. They have poppier aims, though, helped along by Elicson’s glossy voice, which sticks out like a gem embedded in craggy rocks. For Visitor, Empath worked with producer Jake Portrait (of Unknown Mortal Orchestra), recording (mostly) in a proper studio for the first time. Portrait held onto the band’s flattened-out quality, where every member feels like they’re competing for equal footing, but everything sounds cleaner while still sounding kind of like shit in the best way possible. Empath bury their surging choruses in a whole lot of clamor; their songs are jagged and reflective and consistently unpredictable. Visitor is a satisfyingly structured album, with fewer discursive interludes compared to their debut, which adds to its barreling momentum. Save for the gloopy noise bed “V,” which provides somewhat of a break before the album’s final two songs, Visitor is a breathless rush.
As with many musicians based in Philly’s indie scene, Empath’s members have clocked time with a lot of other artists. The one I keep thinking about, and the one that’s perhaps most indicative of the highs that the band is chasing, is Elicson’s association with Maryn Jones, of All Dogs and Yowler — Elicson played with Jones on a Yowler tour and contributed instrumentation to 2018’s Black Dog In My Path. When Empath songs choose to go there, they remind me a lot of All Dogs’ life-altering choruses. At times, Elicson’s delivery can sound reminiscent of Jones’, a low-key rumble that sneaks up and takes over. Some of the singles from Visitor, like “Passing Stranger” and “Born 100 Times” — the latter with its shouted-out chorus of “Is this the power you thought you had?/ You want it, you got it, oh yeah” — scratch the same itch for me that songs like “That Kind Of Girl” or Yowler’s “WTFK” do, a sort of weightless energy that is hard to describe and even harder to replicate.
Elicson’s lyrics are wordy and precise, and they spill out in a fervor. She sings about feeling displaced and disoriented, a visitor in her own life. “Elvis Comeback Special” is particularly poignant in this regard, as she gives herself up to someone but doesn’t receive anything in return: “My life is in your hands,” she sings. “Not that it matters at all.” Or this: “I return as if I’m expected and I feel unnerved and unprotected, I remember you, we do what people do/ Walk the dog in complete silence/ Open up and catch the meaning/ It’s surrounding you and I’m just passing through.” On “Passing Stranger,” she returns to her hometown only to be haunted by real people who feel like myths: “You used to ride in the backseat with the windows wide, counting the leaves/ The radio played blues all day/ Used to know a girl who lived just down the street/ At 17, you heard she had a child and in a few years she would overdose and die/ When you go back, you can’t unsee/ And remembering is like pulling up weeds.”
All this burbles just around the surface, clipped by the rest of the band’s intense waves of sound. Elicson’s voice is drawn more to the foreground on Visitor compared to Empath’s previous releases, but that still means that at any moment it can be swallowed up by the disorder surrounding her. When an Empath song hits that sweet spot — when Elicson shouts some nonsense chorus that makes perfect sense while Coon and Shanahan’s keyboards and synths pulsate and chime and Koloski bashes out what sounds like an entirely different tune — there are few things that feel more powerful. Though it sometimes sounds like they’re all fighting against each other, it’s clear Empath are a tight-knit crew. It takes a close connection to be able to yield such beauty out of chaos.
Visitor is out 2/11 via Fat Possum. Pre-order it here.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Spoon’s Lucifer On The Sofa (more on that one coming soon)
• Big Thief’s Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You
• Eddie Vedder’s Earthling
• Trentemøller’s Memoria
• Andy Bell’s Flicker
• Shamir’s Heterosexuality
• Vundabar’s Devil For The Fire
• Adam Miller’s Gateway
• Claire Rousay & More Eaze’s Never Stop Texting Me
• alt-J’s The Dream
• (fka British) Sea Power’s Everything Was Forever
• Mary J. Blige’s Good Morning Gorgeous
• Backslider’s Psychic Rot
• Cult Of Luna’s The Long Road North
• Napalm Deaths Resentment Is Always Seismic — A Final Throw Of Throes
• VOIVOD’s Synchro Anarchy
• Spring Silver’s I Could Get Used To This
• Joywave’s Cleanse
• Author & Punisher’s Krüller
• Zeal & Ardor’s Zeal & Ardor
• The Cactus Blossoms’ One Day
• Fort Romeau’s Beings Of Light
• Amos Lee’s Dreamland
• Frank Turner’s FTHC
• Ethan Iverson’s Every Note Is True
• Rick Braun’s Rick Braun
• Joe Nichols’ Good Day For Living
• Foxes’ The Kick
• Raveena’s Asha’s Awakening
• Jazmine Sullivan’s Heaux Tales, Mo’ Tales: The Deluxe
• Buke And Gase & Rahrah Gabor’s EP
• Anika’s Change: The Remixes EP