Youth Lagoon is clearly Trevor Powers’ way of coping. Each of their songs has a very therapeutic overtone, each confession seems to get Powers one tiny step closer to loss of anxiety, mental and spiritual harmony or emotional stability. Confession is a great artistic vehicle, and one could easily argue that art is always in one way or another confessional, but how can you evaluate, analyze or simply relate to something this over-emphatically personal? Where does sincerity and openness stop being touching and start being overwhelming? Sadly, Savage Hills Ballroom has no idea either.
The band’s third release tries to rearrange the quirkiness of their previous two albums into a more radio-friendly, indie pop setting, while still keeping some of what made them stand out in the first place. One distinctive feature they tried to accent is Powers’ voice, which has cut through all the huge reverb and modulation of Wondrous Bughouse or all the muffled sing-into-your-arm adolescent charm of The Year of Hibernation. Trevor wants to make himself clearly heard on Savage Hills Ballroom, he wants to face his troubles head on and more than wanting to create something artistic out of them, wants strictly to resolve them. Which is fine and good for him, but do we want to witness something like this? Does it need public display? It feels like that one person you have just met who already tells you about his awful year, with his grandma dying, his landlord kicking him out and his mild mental problem acting up again. There is no aesthetic detachment whatsoever, Powers really pours his heart out, as he usually does, with some interesting imagery to support it, but not enough.
Wondrous Bughouse convinced by way of its psychedelic, playful edge, and by being completely spaced out, The Year of Hibernation, with its charming lo-fi production, but Youth Lagoon’s latest tries to grow up and fails to replace the fun parts. Savage Hills Ballroom seems very strategically thought out to fill a very certain niche. It still has a very indie edge, with its jagged drum machines and weepy vocals, while adopting a more pop format of short songs with clear structures. There are some musical sharp turns with should be given credit to, like the metal influenced rhythmical break of Officer Telephone, or the sudden deep bellows on Again, but that’s about it. Powers’ voice is very recognizable, and suitable as a trademark for the band, but it’s a far to simple move to simply turn the frontman into your logo. What made Youth Lagoon special was a more complex mix of Powers’ voice, his keyboard/synth/drum machine manipulation and a decent backing band. And yet here he is, playing the complete frontman, much to the band’s disadvantage.
The songs themselves are not bad per se. They follow the romantic chord progressions of his previous compositions, coupled with imaginative lyrics, being accessible, yet still intriguing. Highway Patrol Stun Gun could work very well in an indie movie setting with its sad/hopeful/nostalgic/vulnerable yet strong air, and so does No One Can Tell and Free Me. Some atmospheric dreamy spaciness is still there in the instrumental tracks Doll’s Estate and X-Ray, but in a very subdued manner, nowhere near of what happened on Wondrous Bughouse. Kerry is a very ’90s teenage sad story which could be written by The Offspring or Wheatus in a different musical setting and Rotten Human is Powers’ shot at a finger-pointing anti-consumerist number, with mediocre results. It doesn’t sound bad, mixing The Killers and Paranoid Android with a lot of self-pity but it turns into a far too passionate cry for strength.
It’s very hard to form an actual opinion on these songs, being so deeply personal, that it feels weird talking about them. They are what they are, his feelings and what not are not for me to judge, or evaluate. The focus is so far from being aesthetic that it feels like talking about someone else’s problems, without having any way of really knowing them and having to take their word for it. They come out as direct statements you may or may not relate to, but their overwhelming intimacy and Powers’ unbelievable readiness to pour his heart out leave you clamming up and raising your shoulders while phasing out completely and wondering how you can change the subject.