Vinyl LP, Compact Disc (CD), Cassette
The cover of Empath’s new album, Visitor, shows two open doors in a deserted house; one reveals an empty closet, the other leads down a long hall. This vacant space, devoid of people, offers a clue to the album’s songs, which are filled with secret snippets of overheard sound and weave together narratives about people long gone. On their sophomore full-length, the Philadelphia four-piece move away from the raw, noisy indie punk of their debut: Visitor is decidedly poppier, with much of the cacophony swept away, making room for singer and guitarist Catherine Elicson’s soft-yet-strong vocals. It’s a direction in which the band has been moving in for some time—see their stellar 2019 cover of Lucinda Williams’s “Drunken Angel” or that year’s quiet jam “Decor.”
Opener “Genius of Evil” floats in on dreamy surf riffs—the notes slowly radiating outwards, like ripples in water. “Born 100 Times” is energetic and infectious, high keyboard tones sprinkled in the background, the drumming tight and intense. Its invigorating tempo, which knits together different pockets of sound, shows the band is still in tune with its earlier experimental noisiness; they’re just a bit more polished and precise. The muted “Diamond Eyelids” feels like it’s drifting in from another room, its keyboard noodling just another overheard sound in the mix. “House + Universe” is expansive and upbeat, decorated with a medley of found sounds: videogame-like beats, crunching footsteps, organ notes, electronic murmurs. With its carnivalesque keys, “Elvis Comeback Special” has a bright New Wave feel, Elicson’s delivery bringing to mind the cool confidence of Juliana Hatfield.
Lyrically, Elicson returns, again and again, to moments from the past: An imparted lesson that she can’t fully remember, a neighbor’s early death, time lost in a lover’s bed, nights spent on the road. (On the jammy, almost breathless “80s,” she repeats, “You look like your Mom in the ‘80s.”) Time isn’t linear here; the past is always with us, impacting both the present and every possible future.
In a way, the album feels like eavesdropping into someone else’s life. Listen closely, and you might be able to discern particular musical influences (in this case, Fleetwood Mac and David Bowie’s Low) or little moments that happened during the songwriting process (like a chance encounter with Elvis Presley’s comeback special.) Visitor is a reminder of why listening to music is so intimate: Songs become the soundtrack to memories and help us understand that we are not alone in our experiences. Here, Empath reminds us to be open to all possibilities along the way. As Elicson sings, “Open up and catch the meaning/ It’s surrounding you, and I’m just passing through.”