On track “17” of Trevor Powers’ debut album, a line reads: “Don’t stop imagining—the day that you do is the day that you die.” This served as the mission statement for the Boise musician’s dream-pop project Youth Lagoon, sung characteristically in his haunting, lonely falsetto. Powers’ short discography often finds the singer struggling to maintain some semblance of wonder in a world prepared to take it away. And if his latest album “Savage Hills Ballroom” is any indication, that struggle is becoming all the more difficult.
Youth Lagoon’s music has always been introspective, but Powers indulges in full-on self-loathing on this new album, coming off as if he’s actively choosing a life in isolation. Take the single “Rotten Human”, which finds Powers admonishing the fakeness and dishonesty of popular culture. “How are we supposed to know what’s real?” He laments. Whether he rejects society or society rejects him doesn’t matter anymore; he’s completely alone.
From the first track, it’s obvious that Powers is in a very different place than he was in his last two albums. “Officer Telephone” is a dark, defeatist track with one of Trevor’s best vocal performances to date. The lyrics are reminiscent of a blues song with a timeless refrain: “All I want is for you to come back home.” The instrumentation is sparse with an ominous bass and twangy guitar before breaking into a hard-hitting and energetic electronica song; it’s sonic whiplash, but it works.
While Powers is undeniably more pessimistic this time around, the album isn’t an entirely bleak affair. Ballroom’s standout track “Highway Patrol Stun Gun” is an undeniably gorgeous song. Similar to many of Youth Lagoon’s best, it builds to an incredibly cathartic climax ready-made for a road trip montage (though it’s still not exactly a “positive” song; it’s lyrics meditate on a loss of identity). “Kerry” is a Flaming Lips-esque love song and his most radio-friendly track to date. This is an album about being overcome by anxiety (another reoccurring theme in the Youth Lagoon canon), not overcoming it.
Powers’ vocals are as otherworldly as ever, fragile and ghostly. His is an incredibly emotive voice; though his range is limited, it’s a perfect match for his lyrics and ethereal instrumentation. It’s a childlike voice that evokes a sense of loss and confusion. Arguably the defining characteristic of his music, his vocals, are prominently on display in Ballroom which is definitely one of the album’s highlights. The musicianship is strong on this album: though it is lacking the complex instrumentation that made Wondrous Bughouse so memorable, the orchestral moments are fantastic and the audio layering is still strong.
The production on this album acts as the middle ground between the lo-fi, synth-heavy sound on his debut album and the maximalism on his sophomore release, making it more accessible but ultimately sacrificing the experimentation that characterized his earlier work. Another thing that just didn’t work on the album is the track “Again”. Ultimately, the simple percussion and crescendos of noise just don’t work together and the quasi-Beck delivery is not effective.
The cover art calls this album “a collection of ten songs,” but it’s much more cohesive than that. Each track compliments the last, including the two instrumental arrangements. The songs work perfectly well individually, but it works so much better as one uninterrupted self-examination session. Savage Hills Ballroom is admittedly not Youth Lagoon’s best work, but it’s still a solid emotional experience and a decent introductory album to Trevor’s body of work. The wonder that was present throughout his earlier work may be beginning to dissipate, but Youth Lagoon still manages to wear that maturity well.
Savage Hills Ballroom will be released on Sept. 25 on Fat Possum Records