Can a band thrive when it’s stripped of everything that made it unique?
Can a band thrive when it’s stripped of everything that made it unique? That’s what Trevor Powers seems to ask on his latest Youth Lagoon effort, Savage Hills Ballroom. One could call this album The Year of Reinvention, because this marks a definite shift away from the psych-rock sound he cultivated on Wondrous Bughouse and the dream-pop of his debut, without the atmosphere that so defined that record. Savage Hills Ballroom falls so short, it calls into question how good Youth Lagoon’s previous records really were.
Powers’ shift away from vocal distortion has been interpreted as everything from a cleansing spiritual act to an effort to distance himself from so-called bedroom artists making dream-pop with laptops. Perhaps he wants to be heard more and experienced less. On his previous albums, especially The Year of Hibernation, Powers was buried in a mix where he seemed to use his voice as an instrument not unlike one of his synthesizers. With the new album, it feels like he’s trying hard to make a record about How We Live Now, and unlike his other works, it comes across as incredibly forced. In addition, this presents another dilemma: what if people don’t like the voice without the distortion? What was once tolerable becomes annoying for much of the record’s length.
Lead single “The Knower” starts with some of the dumbest lyrics on the record (we get it, dude, people want to think they’re good people, but they’re actually not good people), made even worse by Powers’ voice. A strong horn arrangement saves this song from oblivion, but it establishes a worrying precedent; that the artist who wrote the beautiful lyrics of “Montana” has devolved into the kind of lyricist who deals in bullshit platitudes. “Rotten Human” confirms this trend with conspiracy theorist diatribes about “food diseased by altered seeds” and “tak[ing] pills and trust[ing] doctor’s lies.” It feels like we’ve been writing this kind of song since Bush was re-elected, and their shelf lives aren’t very long. Even the best song on the record, the gorgeous, simple “Highway Patrol Stun Gun,” can’t escape the bad lyric, “Possessed by something in the wind/ They watch me like I’m a threat to them/ With implants deep below their skin/ They laugh cause some refuse a pin.” It gets hard to take this stuff seriously.
There are glimpses of true beauty on the record, but they’re few and far in between. “Stun Gun” has a deceptively simple piano part that melds with deep strings, and it’s the one time on the record that the melancholy in the sound feels comforting or at all relatable. “Kerry” features the best vocal take on the album: Powers doesn’t force his voice to go as high, and he writes some of his best lyrics for a simple love story that adds up to something slightly left of sweet. I wished there was more like it on the record. “Again” has a good beat and Powers’ vocals are fun, even if the lyrics are kind of silly.
Savage Hills Ballroom is a precipitous drop in quality from the lush Wondrous Bughouse, a seeming rebuke to fans of his earlier records. Let’s hope that this depressing record doesn’t come to represent the moment when Trevor Powers lost the particular touch that made his music so special in the first place.