By David A. Bene
So, Trevor Powers grew up. The talented young artist performing under the moniker Youth Lagoon had previously released a pair of albums (2011’s The Year of Hibernation and 2013’s Wondrous Bughouse) that were marked by a childlike ambience and a classic bedroom pop sound. On his newest release Savage Hills Ballroom, Powers has produced an album with a much fuller and mainstream sound, having finally emerged out of that long tunnel that he has been singing through for the past few years and arriving, not as the scruffy kid we knew before, but a guy dressed in gold and wearing garish makeup.
From the opening cut “Officer Telephone,” it is clear that this is a different kind of Youth Lagoon release. Powers’ voice, which sounded brittle, almost to the point of breaking, on the first two releases, comes blasting out of the music loud and clear. Sure, it’s still a bit on the reedy side, but it’s a powerful instrument in its own right on Ballroom. Bold and upfront, it works well with these new songs, which are more musically authoritative than anything Powers has done before. Of course, there is one constant with this new music: Powers is still singing about mental anguish, with the catalyst to the whole project having been the death of one of his closest friends during his tour for Wondrous Bughouse.
On Savage Hills Ballroom, Powers’ primary focus is on the endless quest for an unattainable perfection in a very flawed world. This theme is especially prevalent on album highlight “Rotten Human”, which in some ways sounds like a long lost hit from the 1980’s. Lyrically, it speaks of the hopelessness of the prospect that we fit into a pigeonholed existence, an expectation that we fill ‘our role’, reminiscent of Alice Cooper’s “Clones (We’re All)”. The same theme resurfaces on the musically minimalist track “Again”, which bemoans the prospect of having no individuality. We have to behave as expected, or else be an outcast. Having a personality of one’s own is not an option in today’s world, stifling all attempts at uniqueness.
Musically, Powers has stretched out to include horns (especially on “The Knower” and the piano and horn instrumental album closer “X-Ray”) and 80’s style-synths (“No One Can Tell”). With help from producer Ali Chant (P.J. Harvey, Portishead, Mark Ronson, Perfume Genius), Powers has moved far beyond his bedroom to give us one of the finest albums of the year. Although Powers continues to give us beautiful piano moments (“Highway Patrol Stun Gun”, for which an aura of sadness permeates, and the lovely instrumental “Doll’s Estate”), one could be excused for thinking that they were listening to With Teeth-era Nine Inch Nails towards the end of opening track “Officer Telephone.” The only slip up on the entire album would seem to be “Kerry”, an ode to Powers’ uncle, whose drug-addled existence is portrayed on a song which seems to be more heartfelt than impressive. Nonetheless, this is an album that strikes one strongly both musically and lyrically. The potential that we clearly saw on the first two albums has been fully realized here.
David A. Bene is a freelance journalist who, during the day, works at a ‘real’ job bringing home the bacon. But at night, when everything comes alive, he can’t help but regularly indulge in two of his greatest passions…writing and music. Put the dude at a corner table with a laptop and some tunes and what do you get? Why, the guy who writes album reviews for Live from the Internet, of course! David, who has authored two books, resides in Independence, KY with his wife and four (yes, four) kids. Read more work from David here.