Trevor Powers is no stranger to change. In fact, the man behind the indie-pop powerhouse Youth Lagoon embraces it with the most open of arms, taking it like cream and sugar with his morning coffee and going on about his day. His audience, for the most part, has the same reaction to Youth Lagoon’s ever-evolving sound – they take it as a given, almost as if the sonic transition from album to album is representative of the overall sound of the band in itself.
Savage Hills Ballroom, the latest LP from Youth Lagoon, is no exception to the rule. It treats its obvious differences from 2013’s Wondrous Bughouse with the kind of shoulder-shrugging attitude usually seen from artists with more homogeneous catalogs – “Well, what did you expect?” Skipping the unnecessary formalities and fronts put up by more extroverted projects, Powers has always been about getting down to business and delivering the music where it hits the hardest. His latest record is possibly the best example of this he has to offer, offering up powerful songwriting and satisfying bursts of sound, no frills necessary.
One of these frills that’s been done away with over the past several years is the fuzzier elements of Youth Lagoon’s sound. Bughouse had it in spades, delivering riffs and trippy tangents that were solidly within the “lo-fi” realm, and delightfully so. However, on Ballroom, it seems as though Powers has trimmed the fat – choosing clean piano chords over warm, dirty synth pads. This opens up a little more room for other elements of the music to shine through, most notably Powers’s voice, which was mostly hidden on records one and two. Remarkably, this is the change that adds the most color on Ballroom – Powers’s ability to mold and shape his voice to fit different musical situations is both interesting and rewarding to listen to.
Another important effect of pushing the vocals a bit further into the spotlight is that it draws more attention to the lyrical side of the record. This is one aspect of Youth Lagoon’s formula that often gets overlooked, although it’s usually of crucial importance to each record in terms of atmosphere – where would Bughouse’s “Attic Doctor” be without its mindless ramblings of the morally skewed title character? Or The Year Of Hibernation’s “17” minus the chilling metaphors for mortality? Much of Ballroom works to the same effect, pairing simple, bleak phrases with musical settings that match. The haunting “The Knower” and powerful ballad “Again” serve as great examples of this, putting the lyrical content in the spotlight and reinforcing it with the instrumentals instead of doing it the other way around.
Perhaps the one drawback of Savage Hills Ballroom is that it isn’t particularly immersive or striking in any way. This may sound harsh, however, there aren’t too many elements at play here that serve to draw the listener in; much like the dreaminess of Hibernation or the acid-y playground feel of Bughouse did. Although it doesn’t serve to make the record any worse, it doesn’t make it any better, either – and all things considered, that may be why it falls short of Youth Lagoon’s previous releases.
Still, though, Powers has managed to create a captivating work of art once again. Although it may not have the same feeling of cohesion associated with his previous two records, Savage Hills Ballroom is a great “Collection of 10 Songs” through and through – despite the fact that it doesn’t feel like anything more than that.