Cymbals Eat Guitars Meet Tony Soprano
The best song on the great new Cymbals Eat Guitars album, Pretty Years, is called “4th of July, Philadelphia (SANDY),” an immediate nod to Bruce Springsteen that’s as complicated and tortured as The Boss’ tune is tender. Its power lies in the fuzzy two-chord buildup of its verses, over which singer Joe D’Agostino unfurls a harrowing true tale from Independence Day 2015.
As explained in a very good recent Spin profile (and in the song’s lyrics), D’Agostino hopped in a car with some friends, including fellow Philly rocker Alex G, and a driver whose “eyes are Xs and his head’s out the window” before gunning it through a family’s exploding fireworks display in the street. The family was upset, and it got ugly: a “scary” uncle appeared, sporting a gun, and the father crushed a baseball bat against the driver’s head, sending him to the hospital.
“How many universes am I alive and dead in?” D’Agostino sings on chorus, settling on “a new one every second.” Plus, there’s a realization: “Can’t make it matter more. My life is sliding by.”
These are the unmistakable hallmarks of a man in a malaise, amid a creeping fog of indecipherable melancholy that descends and pulls a thin curtain of blankness over everything. The movie we watch that we don’t really remember when someone asks about it . The split-bill show we go see that, sure, was mostly fine. The fried po’ boy we try at the new Southern joint that was OK, I guess.
And then? Boom! The curtain is yanked up, and we’re jarred back to the moment. All it takes is almost getting blown to bits by a cavalcade of Roman candles.
“My depression suddenly lifted. All the adrenaline shocked my nervous system. Swore I’d be present and grateful for every second,” D’Agostino reveals two-thirds into the song, after he sees the “bat hit Bo’s head.” But we know better, and he admits he does, too: “Later the feeling faded. I couldn’t help it.”
Regardless of how long our epiphanies last, they’re valid because they happened. We know that, despite the sense of hollow worthlessness that can set in once we realize our latest a-ha moment has gone vacant. They still matter — it’s just about acknowledging their power. That’s exactly what “4th of July, Philadelphia (SANDY)” does. And it got me thinking about Tony Soprano.
At the end of The Sopranos’ first season, Tony’s in a depressive rut. He’s been in therapy for months but is still collapsing from seemingly uncontrollable panic attacks. Work is stressful, you see, but worse yet are his familial relations—his uncle wants him dead and follows through with an execution plan once he gets an ostensible cosign from Tony’s mother. (The show’s Season 1 tagline: “If one family doesn’t kill me, the other will.”) So his therapist ups his dose of Prozac and throws in Lithium for good measure, dulling his days as a thick, emotionless smog pumps into them. The therapy, the pills, the escapism all can’t make it matter more. His life is sliding by.
And then a hired assassin shoots the orange juice right out of his hand on a New Jersey street in broad daylight as he’s about to enter his car. Fight or flight kicks in, shocking his nervous system and rousing him to act. His brain sends a loud message to the rest of his body: “LIFE IS WORTH LIVING.” And Tony Soprano lives, quickly and immediately—he hops in his SUV, disarms the shooter, takes out the accomplice, and drives off cackling into the sunset (OK, into a parked car). That’s living.
The episode where this all goes down is called “Isabella,” named after a beautiful Italian student Tony hallucinates a lunch date with while high on uppers. And as soon as I heard the Cymbals Eat Guitars song, I thought, man, this should really be called “4th Of July, Philadelphia (ISABELLA),” and Joe D’Agostino should really hop on the phone with Robin Green and Mitchell Burgess, who wrote the episode, to compare notes. But it’s parenthetically titled “SANDY” both as a direct reference to Springsteen and likely as an oblique one to Alex G, as his Bandcamp URL would suggest. (Does that mean Alex G, presumably named Alexander for long, is known as Sandy among his friends, like that one guy in that Philip Barry play, what’s it called, oh yes, THE PHILADELPHIA STORY?)
Tony Soprano wasn’t going to die in the 12th episode of his own series, but Joe D’Agostino could’ve died on July 4, 2015. That reality bleeds through his song’s three-and-a-half-minutes, making it a perilous narrative to endure. When you get to the end and the question comes back around—“How many universes am I alive and dead in?”—the answer feels earned from experience: the same one where The Sopranos’ creator maybe killed Tony off at the end (but maybe didn’t), where a young Joe D’Agostino could’ve theoretically watched Bruce Springsteen sing “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)” at the then-Giants Stadium in July 2003 and channel it in a song a decade later, and where Cymbal Eat Guitars’ fourth album captures the unresolved angst of making it through your 20s (and the rest of your life) with yourself intact. A new one every second.