By Casey Newton
“So much music nowadays is really shallow,” Trevor Powers said late this summer, just before the release of The Year of Hibernation, his debut album under the name Youth Lagoon. “There’s not much heart or emotion in it.” As ad hominem attacks go, this one seems especially weak — spend an afternoon with this year’s records from the Antlers, Bon Iver and EMA, and you’ll find more than enough depth to sustain you. Coming as it did from a 22-year-old, Powers’ gentle broadside had about it the whiff of the adolescent — the knee-jerk disdain for the culture at large, and its failure to capture all the nuances of his existence. But then young artists are always complaining that their older peers don’t get it. That frustration becomes the creative engine for their own work — and, in the case of Youth Lagoon, for the best album I heard all month.
Age was a hot topic in October, thanks to some heated reaction to this Nitsuh Abebe piece on whether Wilco, Feist and even Radiohead might usefully be described as “adult contemporary.” “It’s tasteful and subtle and brings a few newish ideas to the middle of the road,” Abebe wrote of that genre. “It adheres to a classic sense of what rock and American music are, but approaches it from artful enough directions to not seem entirely fusty; a certain type of teenager and a certain type of parent might agree on it.”
Powers, I think, would not have been one of those teenagers. As an artist he is defined by his youth, literally. Earlier this year, blog Frontier Psychiatrist asked him how he came up with the name. “Sometimes I think in images,” Powers said. “And when I was thinking of what to call my project, I thought of this scene of all these kids around a remote waterhole. And there were a lot of feelings in that image … feelings of nostalgia and all kinds of things. So I decided to name it Youth Lagoon.”
A bunch of kids, gathered together in a remote location, staring into the bog of their feelings: This turns out to be an apt way to describe the experience of listening to Youth Lagoon. The eight songs on the debut fit comfortably under the rubric of bedroom pop — it’s where Powers recorded them, by himself — and much of the record seems to be working out versions of the same musical idea. A track will start with a simple, looping figure on keyboard or guitar, be joined a few seconds later by his voice, high and fragile, and from there Powers piles up layers of tuneful melancholy. In his fondness for fuzzed-out vocals and looping melodies he recalls the Radio Dept.; in his attention to layering he is a kind of emo LCD Soundsystem.
As I’ve warmed to The Year of Hibernation, I’ve marveled at the way that Powers has taken such delicate threads of voice, guitar and keyboards and spun them into anthems. Taken together, his record achieves the depth he finds lacking in his peers. Call it quarterlife contemporary — tasteful and subtle, sure, but still in thrall to that remote waterhole of adolescent angst. “You still say I love you, but you still want my soul,” Powers sings on “The Hunt,” my favorite song on his record. A lot of feelings in that image. Feelings of nostalgia and all kinds of things. Who needs growing up?
Not M83. October saw the release of Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, a big and big-sounding double album dedicated to the young and young at heart. This is the second album, after 2008’s superb Saturdays=Youth, on which Gonzalez uses twee spoken-word voiceovers to convey ecstatic naiveté. On Saturdays it was “Graveyard Girl,” which featured a young goth saying extremely 15-year-old things (“I’m 15 years old and I feel it’s already too late to live. Don’t you?”). Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming has room for a sixth track, “Raconte-Moi Une Histoire,” in which a little girl tells a story about a magical frog. M83’s music is aging in reverse, a French synth pop Benjamin Button, enormous and starry-eyed as childhood itself. “For me, this album is a tribute to those years of innocence where everything was perfect,” Gonzalez told Pitchfork. “I had the perfect childhood. … I would rather live in an imaginary world forever. My music is my retreat.”
Gonzalez’s continued focus on childlike maximalism has drawn plenty of criticism; Coke Machine Glow argued that Hurry Up pales next to its predecessor. “It is goopier and more embarrassing, but less thematically consistent,” wrote Conrad Armenta. “Its songs don’t pull off the same urgency; it feels bloated and unnecessary, like the sequel no one planned until the unexpected success of the original.” I wanted badly to disagree with this assessment, having fallen deeply for the record’s exhilarating first two songs, “Intro” and “Midnight City.” But spending a month with the record, it’s hard not to feel like much of it is excess for excess’ sake — and that Spin’s blunt assessment of Gonzalez (“orgasm addict”) had something to it.
But the point of the double album from time immemorial has been to whittle it down to something more digestible, and Hurry Up benefits greatly from a radical shrinking. For my money, the ideal sequencing of the record goes “Intro” / “Midnight City” / “OK Pal” / “Steve McQueen” / “Wait.” Four tracks of audio adrenaline, chased with gentle closer. At five songs it’s barely an EP — but a record this big turns out to work best at child size.
Review of the month: Chuck Klosterman on Lulu, the gloriously bad collaboration between Lou Reed and Metallica.
Milestone: Steve Jobs died on Oct. 5 at 56 after a long fight with cancer. Among the six or seven industries Jobs at Apple reinvented was music — the introduction of the iPod in 2001, and the subsequent introduction of the iTunes Music Store in 2003, can reasonably be said to have changed the way we listen to music. And they dragged the music industry into the future we now live in, where we can stream nearly any song we can think of, on demand and for free.
Picture of the month: The Jolie-Pitt children as the Black-Eyed Peas.
Also, everything on http://kanyedbythebell.tumblr.com/
Casey Newton lives in San Francisco and blogs at Crumbler.