Complicated thoughts, surprising joy and expansive sound make Youth Pastoral a memorable confession.
It’s been four years since Ben Seretan’s last proper album, but new record Youth Pastoral sounds like it’s been cooking for far longer than that. He brings his vision into a unified approach this time around, finding his experience of moving away from God dovetailing with the fallout of a troubled relationship. Seretan finds solid footing in an uncertain process, discovering a new sort of freedom in springing from his past (without belittling where he’s been). The complicated thoughts, surprising joy and expansive sound make Youth Pastoral a memorable confession.
The core of Seretan’s work comes from his move away from the evangelical Christianity of his youth. While he no longer embraces that faith, his album draws strength from the revelation of his questioning. “Holding up the Sun”—one of the tracks in which Seretan and his band most directly connects to the indie-folk lineage of Akron/Family—begins with his baptism in the ocean. It then looks at an amusement park as “the Holy Land.” In the consideration of an ironic religious iconography, Seretan finds support. In his repeated, “Everything’s gonna be all right/ You shine a little light for me,” he may not clarify who he addresses, but his pleasure in finding some sort of security resounds.
Seretan uses the demands of bad relationships as the other pillar of Youth Pastoral. When he sings, “I remade myself to your taste, poured myself into your coffee cup,” on “Straight Line,” we hear the unhealthy self-abnegation that romance can induce. This time, fortunately, he manages to draw a line, both as an ultimate and as a rigid ending to the fluidity of performing at someone else’s desire. The song itself, though given few lyrics, suits Seretan’s aesthetic well. In his blend of indie-rock and folk, he eschews traditional forms—don’t look for verse-chorus sensibility here—but he doesn’t drift into shapelessness either. The images cohere into sensibility, the music crescendos effectively and if you can’t sketch out a nice outline for the song, so much the better.
Where the album gains its true power is in its ability to blend those two foundational elements. Centerpiece “Am I Doing Right by You” contains a wealth of lyrics that could be song to a god or to an ex-lover. “I could feel you pulling away when I tried to pray,” Seretan sings. Later: “I still think that you might come back into my little life.” Even the titular question wavers between religious obedience, relational insecurity and a reminder of the problems of “Straight Line.” Each utterance of “Oh my god” carries its own meaning, whether addressed to an actual deity or given as a more secular cry.
On Youth Pastoral, Seretan pulls off a rare trick. He writes with great sincerity and even earnestness, yet his lyrics contain enough ambiguity to persistently compel attention. There’s a confessional element to his writing, but it’s crafted in a manner that doesn’t easily give up autobiography beyond the basic shape. The loss of faith and the loss of love merge, but beyond that, we’re asked to engage with the art to figure out not only where Seretan is at emotionally and spiritually, but also where we are. Others might answer differently, but Seretan’s certainly doing right by his audience.