By SHAY COLLINS
Write this down: Savage Hills Ballroom is going to have a sizable presence on end-of-year “Best Of” lists. Youth Lagoon (a.k.a. 26 year-old Trevor Powers) stripped away the instrumental excess and lyrical melodrama that dominated his first two albums to craft his third release. The resulting product is a concise ten-course offering, each track of which evidences Powers’ ability to arrange creative orchestrations and write captivating melodies.
For the first time, Youth Lagoon can be described as an indie-rock group. It is a welcome change. Youth Lagoon’s first release in 2011 – The Year of Hibernation – was the work of a young and wistful Powers, all navel-gazing and shimmering guitar riffs. On 2013’s Wondrous Bughouse, Powers swung across the spectrum. The sophomore release oozed out carnival-esque keyboards and wandering vamps. But the songs swelled up to nothing and Wondrous Bughouse lacked The Year of Hibernation’s emotion.
Savage Hills Ballroom, however, combines and strengthens Youth Lagoon’s best elements. Powers counters abstract lyrics with jarring instrumentation (“No One Can Tell”) and puts evocative storytelling on a solid ballad bedrock (“Kerry”). Half of the album’s tracks charge into indie rock territory. Powers succeeds on them with impressive accuracy for an artist trying out new styles.
“Officer Telephone” signals from the first measure that Powers is done whimpering. Over a foreboding electric piano riff, Powers sings a forceful declaration: “My legs are limbs/My shoes are cold stones/All I want is for you to come home.” Powers subtly builds the arrangement: one guitar, foghorn-like brass and a single hi-hat, barely audible. Powers’ voice cuts out after a minute and he proves how far he has come since Wondrous Bughouse. A distorted drum set and bass synthesizer drone drive the song through a pounding, take-no-prisoners outro that sounds more like electro-punk thrashers The Prodigy than any indie-pop contemporaries.
“Officer Telephone” also reveals Powers’ willingness to be ephemeral. On Wondrous Bughouse, Powers stayed in riffs for minutes at a time. Now, the listener gets one glimpse of a killer hook and then its gone. Powers uses the same structure on “No One Can Tell.” A snare snaps the second and fourth beats down under fat, alien synthesizers. Powers warbles in the verse (although the hi-hat is never out of earshot), but when the song reaches the climax reappears. With the accompanying instrumentation, Powers’ otherwise melancholy lyrics (“I can never feel the way I want to/Comatose in the bedroom”) sound uninhibited. Later, Powers gets just plain audacious as well.
On “Again,” Powers sheds his weepy persona for that of a sardonic prophet. “Through aisles of cans you walk/You’d rather spend than grow a crop,” Powers jeers. After a minute and a half of his chanting, he cuts off to the sound of an overdriven, nearly percussive guitar and scratching strings. During the two years following Wondrous Bughouse, Powers became an adept arranger. Now is his time to show off.
Savage Hills Ballroom’s creative (and enjoyable) peak occurs right after its midpoint in “Rotten Human” and “Kerry.” “Rotten Human” epitomizes Powers’ success with ephemeral music. Every enthralling and beautiful moment occurs and disappears. Over two celestial synthesizers, Powers sings, “You were the habit I couldn’t break/Lying awake for eight hours straight/ Human, I am a rotten human.” But as Powers holds out “human” for a few extra seconds, he exists between self-pity and defiant confidence. It’s a moment of pure, ungraspable brilliance; you have to hit repeat, you have to hear it again. Yet, right after Powers ascends to his furthest-reaching and most profound track, he reels it back in and stuns with the elegant, heartbreaking “Kerry.” Over an unaffected piano (a rarity for Youth Lagoon), Powers sings a simple narrative about cocaine addiction. Powers does not rely on conspicuous affects or creative structures throughout the whole song. Yet, “Kerry” probes an emotional depth that Youth lagoon hasn’t reached since his still best known hit: “17.” Supported by piano, guitar, bass and drums alone, Powers sings, “Used to be Las Vegas made him feel alive/Now instead of just succeeding, he’d rather just survive.” But just as we fall in love with heart-on-his-sleeve Powers, he jumps into callous “Again.” Although critics often commend albums for realizing one vision, Youth Lagoon excels on Savage Hills Ballroom by showing off a multitude of styles. Powers is a storyteller, punk, critic and, above all, a tremendous arranger. But Savage Hills Ballroom is also a distilled album. Powers moves through many instruments and structures without writing superfluous tracks. If Powers puts eight instruments on a track, he wants the listener to clearly hear all of them. Powers’ ability to combine minimalist riffs into a rich mosaic (think fuzzy guitars, stammering synths, trumpet and vocal samples on “The Knower”) is the mark of a grown-up, highly skilled songwriter.