I can hear the elitist critics up in arms now; “This is not Youth Lagoon!?” In many ways they’re right. If you’re expecting the same spacey, synth heavy, dream pop that the Boise raised, one-man-show Trevor Powers helped perfect in critically acclaimed debut “The Year of Hibernation (’11)” look elsewhere. You will find none of that here. Instead from track one you’ll find crafty, organized, multi-layer arrangements. If it isn’t obvious by now I am a fan of the music. I don’t want to downplay my love for the brand of gloomy, sort of thought provoking work of his past. That clean mess, beautiful chaos approach has always and will always work for me. So why do I support the evident change of direction with this record? I don’t think I’m alone when I say that art is about strides. About taking risks. Leaps and bounds. It’s about evolving and growing up and if you cease to do so your work stops becoming art. Just a job you are bound by. This is Youth Lagoon’s ascent from those shackles.
I will admit Powers, in search of the unfamiliar, does come off a bit abrasive in the opener “Officer Telephone”. There’s an industrial tinge that from time to time infiltrates this album and takes away from the brighter strokes. He quickly makes up for it with “Highway Patrol Stun Gun”, a beautifully orchestrated arrangement of piano, cello, and violin coupled with the reoccurring theme of the album: clean vocals. 100% audible. Unusual for Powers they’re not drenched in reverb. A radio friendly pop number; it’s Coldplay with balls. Followed by the boldly unorthodox pre-released single “The Knower”-horns section and all- this track will also leave devout fans unsure what to make of this album. On to “No One Can Tell”.
The constant remains his voice. Channeling his inner Peter Gabriel with assistance from his British producer Ali Chant (M. Ward, PJ Harvey, Giant Sand) and intricate engineering, the glass clear vocals ring on. Begin the power stretch of the record. To the delight of experimental purists, a familiar chord is struck with the instrumental “Dolls Estate”. Somewhere between his old self and The Album Leaf, this trancing lullaby is a breath of fresh air for those thus far put off by the effort. However to the dismay of some early adopters who may be afraid to embrace change come’s “Rotten Human”. A solid melodic outburst equipped with a thick bass line and radiant star power. Starting out reminiscent of a churchy Spiritualized number only to be con-temporized by elements of Muse, completed by a touch of a mature Killers for good measure. The sentiment is repeated in “Kerry”. The power bass and strings continue.
There is a pattern at the finish line. It’s that industrial front that seems to intermittently sweep the album. Think NIN featuring guest vocalist Connor Oberst of Bright Eyes who, yes, I am a fan of both…..just probably not together. Super evident in both “Again” and especially “Free Me”, the record comes to a graceful close with a second instrumental, the Grandaddy-esque “X-Ray”. A lullaby much like “Dolls Estate”. Straightforward. Less robust, more soothing. A perfect parting for a complicated album that keeps you on your toes and always guessing. For the Youth Lagoon we know, this is a surprise. If you came into this album expecting vocals recorded so hollow the lyrics are hardly audible combined with familiar progressions throughout then we are a lot alike. Perhaps that is the irony of the album: Youth Lagoon carved a name for himself going against the grain. Forging his own path with an exclusive formula, yet, those familiar with his works and don’t receive this album well are the ones hesitant to deviate from the safe route. To virgin ears Savage Hill Ball Room has the potential to be critically acclaimed. The fact remains. It can be a tough pill to swallow if you don’t need the medicine.