REVIEW: Youth Lagoon’s Savage Hills Ballroom is Trevor Powers’ most confident offering yet

There are two ways to listen to Trevor Powers’ new Youth Lagoon album Savage Hills Ballroom. Much like his debut LP, The Year of Hibernation (2011) and its follow up Wondrous Bughouse (2013), this new release works both as a snug listen through a pair of earbuds or as an all encompassing beast at top volume, filling an entire room. This is the finesse to Powers’ artistry, and it perhaps always has been. Across what are now three albums, the Idaho native manages to explore the vast reaches of Youth Lagoon while maintaining the same sense of character. That isn’t to say that each album sounds the same or that Powers’ prowess as a songwriter doesn’t grow along the YL journey -quite the opposite- but they maintain the same intrinsic qualities. Through Youth Lagoon, Trevor Powers demonstrates an innate ability to affect people deeply, something which is not said lightly nor from a singular, solely personal perspective.

The Year of Hibernation was an intimate, deeply anxious exploration of the inner workings of Powers’ mind. Though it was lyrically draped in nostalgia, it was never in danger of sounding like a throwback album. Wondrous Bughouse took a turn down a different path: one of a more psychedelic, technicolor leaning, sounding bigger and bolder and perhaps not quite to the taste of all previously existing fans. Now, Savage Hills Ballroom has taken components of both those previous albums and spun them into new explorations of loss, love and life.

Previously, the vocals of Youth Lagoon have been characteristically hidden at the open of an album: be it under the soft, synth layers of Posters on TYOH or, as it is the case with WB, through their total absence on Through Mind And Back . This is not the same for Officer Telephone, the opening track of the new LP. A sauntering instrumental puts Powers’ voice at the forefront and perhaps for the first time, we are made aware of it’s power. The stylized warble remains, but it’s stronger and surer in its role as an instrument as it grows with the song. Highway Patrol Stungun continues this showcase. This, the song that almost didn’t make the final cut of the album, with its parred back keys, swelling strings and steady percussion all matched with Powers’ voice, is one of the strongest of the collection of 10 tracks. Highway Patrol Stungun‘s competition for the title of “best track”? Free Me, a song of significantly higher energy that enlists Powers’ falsetto to put forth some particularly vivid imagery (“as the roof caves in / embers light my skin”) and Rotten Human with its effective use of repetition which leaves Powers’ exposed, but not necessarily vulnerable.

Dolls Estate is perhaps not the most original of interludes: a piano driven track with the soft background synth and reverberation of classic Youth Lagoon. But it is calming and earns itself more than one replay. Purely instrumental, it sounds the way the start of spring feels: sunny and hazy, but with a cool breeze. X Ray presents another totally instrumental cut: one that rounds out the album. The Knower (along with Rotten Human) with its wonderful, if surprising, use of a full blown horn section proves that Powers’ (or maybe the powers that be) is brilliant at picking his singles.

Kerry, paints a vivid character portrait of Powers’ uncle. A man whose battle with drug addition saw him on the run from the law until his eventual death from an overdose. This entire story line is sung over the top of a contrasting, bright piano track. Some of the most vivid lyrical content on the album, Kerry is also the cut with the strongest pop-leaning sensibility and this contrast is what keeps things grounded and focused in the Youth Lagoon hemisphere.

The entire piece is only ten tracks long and while it feels as though Savage Hills Ballroom could have continued for another two or three songs, the fact that it doesn’t is somewhat reassuring. It’s wonderfully curated and signifies that this time around, Trevor Powers is more sure of what he wants to do with a Youth Lagoon album, or perhaps more confident to do what he has always wanted to. Gone are previous preoccupations (whatever they may have been) and in their place is a more certain Trevor Powers and a more confident Youth Lagoon album. TYOH will forever be YL’s classic, WB the polarizing and experimental sophomore surprise, but Savage Hills Ballroom is the most confident, and therefore perhaps the best, Youth Lagoon offering. At least until the next.