Until now, I’ve associated Youth Lagoon with time.
One of the first things I learned about Trevor Powers was that he was young — 22 when I started listening to him in September of 2011. There was also his debut album’s title — The Year of Hibernation. And then there was the fact that, despite his youngness (sorry, I can’t type “youth” and let you all think I’m the kind of person who would make that pun), it was clear that Powers’ songs looked backward in time, with nostalgic glances toward “fireworks on the 4th of July” and his ’96 Buick. In fact, “nostalgia” became something of a buzzword for the album. A sticky descriptor. A consensus adjective. Here was this 22-year-old pining for the past, while so many of us sit around pining for our early 20’s. (The idea certainly drew me in.)
I don’t mean to suggest that this analysis wasn’t/isn’t apt. Powers himself has said that the name of his project is based on feelings of nostalgia. But I wonder if his years, or relative lack of them, caused this one quality to loom overly large in people’s minds. There was more to The Year of Hibernation than longing for the past. There were brilliant dynamic relationships… memorable melodies… uplifting builds… Besides, nostalgia, by nature, isn’t totally positive. It’s unavoidable — enjoyable on some levels — but it’s also passive. It’s ineffectual. You can’t travel back in time, and there’s nothing sadder than people who are incapable of coming to terms with that reality.
That’s why I was so thrilled when I started making my way through the NPR First Listen of Powers’ follow-up, Wondrous Bughouse. Whereas everything to date has felt like it was related to time, these songs, to me, are all about space.
Empire Records has to be one of the most underrated music movies. For one thing, its advocacy for locally owned record stores seems more relevant now than ever, even though the nature of their enemy has changed dramatically. Little did we know that Warren, the shoplifter, would evolve and become the real villain. Another great thing about Empire Records is that it’s chock full of well-encapsulated truths about rock music, from the disappointment one can feel upon finally meeting/trying to have sex with a teen idol, to the difficulty that rock stars have maintaining their credibility as they age, to the fact music can act as a filter for our raw emotions, rendering us better equipped to deal with the pressures of day-to-day life. But of all the musical truisms that Empire Records illustrates, my favorite has to be Lucas’ band name advice to Mark: “Always play with their minds.” It seems like an overly philosophical piece of dialogue when Lucas delivers it, but he’s not wrong — cognitive dissonance is crucial to rock music. Taking cues from blues (the blue note gives you a musical itch that only the root note can scratch) and jazz (crazy shit happening everywhere), the most interesting and important rock musicians have always been the ones that challenge us, both in terms of the songs they write and the image they project. One artist currently has different parts of my brain pitted against one another in a ridiculously enjoyable fit of cognitive dissonance, and that artist is Youth Lagoon. On one hand, you have Trevor Powers’ age (just 22) and his vocal style (as vulnerable-sounding as it gets). On the other hand, you have the quality of his debut album, The Year of Hibernation (wonderfully layered and sophisticated), the wisdom of his lyrics (well beyond his years), and the overall feeling of nostalgia he projects (manifested poignantly in the sepia-toned video for his song “Montana”). It just doesn’t add up… and I love it. Pitchfork recently took this set of contradictions one step further in their new series Tunnelvision, which invites innovative directors from all over the web to shoot unique performance videos. I had gotten so accustomed to the yearning, sentimental, and therefore removed texture of Powers’ reverb-soaked vocals on “July” that director Charles Bergquist’s decision to use tightly framed shots was startling at first, like a conceptual version of the dolly zoom shot in Jaws, in which the camera advances on Chief Brody’s face while zooming out at the same time (or maybe it’s the opposite — it’s really hard to tell). It’s an intentionally disorienting experience, but oddly pleasing at the same time. I’m not sure if this is exactly what Bergquist had in mind, but I found his video, and Powers’ performance, to be wildly enjoyable and engaging, and I hope you’ll check it out above, listen to the album version below, buy The Year of Hibernation here, and have some fun confusing the crap out of your brain.
Youth Lagoon — “July“