Album Review: Young Jesus – Welcome to Conceptual Beach

[Saddle Creek; 2020]

With a sound that pushes harder and more sophisticated than most indie rock, Young Jesus deserves your attention—and it stems from the man behind every iteration of this band: John Rossiter. 

Hailing from Chicago, the now-LA-based outfit finds its head in the clouds, conceptually and musically, more often than most of its emo-adjacent and indie rock contemporaries – although there really is no one like Young Jesus. In an interview with UPROXX, Rossiter mentions never paying attention to the tropes of emo and indie rock as a whole, for it “can be a bit suffocating.” A headier breed of indie rock, emo, or whatever you’d like to categorize them as, it admittedly takes a long while to fully embrace the group’s unconventional strokes of Sun Ra-inspired improvisations, instrumental experimentation, and enlarged post-rock song structures. But once grasped, it’s easy to conclude why Young Jesus have been hyped for years.

Welcome To Conceptual Beach, as pretentious as the title comes across, is a record that pushes the long-winded, noise-tinged arrangements of previous projects to more sweeping and melodic extremes – and yet it winds up being the band’s most emotionally delicate and intricate record to date. In fact, Rossiter extends his hand further into poetic abstraction and topical ambiguity, offering listeners a reprieve from pandemic 2020, and into his mental paradise.

We are, at times, overtly enraptured by our present reality; so much so that we become weighed down by the horrors that may consume it. But we frequently forget that, as creative and sentient beings, we are privy to two worlds — the other being our dreams and imagination where beautiful things can manifest. Welcome To Conceptual Beach is a poignant illustration of what happens when these two worlds meet.

Rossiter’s imaginative refuge is quite stunning. In the record’s press release, his latest undertaking is described as a refracted image of his long-time mental haven, where he lives “like a medieval, stigmata-wrought hermit – all his needs for okay-ness finally met.” This space was formerly filled with hopelessness, spats of anger and ruminations on addiction, but now Rossiter is opening it up and inviting others to join him for the first time. 

Advance singles “Root and Crown” and “(un)knowing” suggested a more straightforward project, but the rest of the album proves brevity and simplicity are a mirage. In fact, Young Jesus angle further into these post-rock spaces befit to the album’s titular dreamscape—Conceptual Beach.

The opening track “Faith” keeps expectations at bay with a seven-minute foray into math rock complexities that ebb-and-flow at the will of Rossiter’s broad vocal range. Here, he reaches an uncomfortable but affecting falsetto, buoyed by the track’s accompanying parts. Accentuating the record’s underlying theme that pain is still to be found in happiness and paradise, Rossiter, in a voice expressively strained but swelling with sincerity, levies the hearts of his listeners: “Imperfection never leaves / And the pain you feel, you’ll always feel a bit.” “Faith” is a track that wears many faces, softly coursing around and through the listener until it doesn’t. A gripping blueprint, to say the least, Young Jesus impress this dynamic formula of atmospheric peaks and valleys across most of the remaining cuts.

From the record’s sprawling start rises the shimmering “Pattern Doubt”, where steady drums, twinkling keys, and whirling licks of saxophone make for a peaceful display—at first. It soon balloons with sudden intensity and grooviness through these same elements, just played with more power. Moments like “Meditations” and “Magicians” are structured similarly, also soaring from their modest beginnings, but with more fervor and a more improvised sound. “Pattern Doubt”, though quite the gorgeous thrill, is more designed and calculated, bursting at the seams with cathartic eagerness as horns and playful piano jaunt across the stars of this increasingly ornate setting.

While the breathtaking centrepiece “(un)knowing” is understatedly tender at its core, the yearnful track steadily pushes the listener towards its imposing second half. As the song’s guttural guitars rear their head, one can sense a tightening grasp, yet we welcome this moment with open arms. As the soft folk atmosphere of the song’s first two minutes cedes to a Big Thief-like eruption (think “Not”), the whole world—that is the world of Welcome To Conceptual Beach—slows to a meditative trance where pensive waves of synth augment another raw Rossiter vocal performance. Here, the Young Jesus frontman sounds at once devastated, yet on the precipice of some spiritual enlightenment. Though the emotional grandeur of “un(knowing)” is a sonic experience to behold in and of itself, its message about the pain of re-examining a life and of committing to an existence of experience and curiosity allows Rossiter’s voice to cut even more profound. 

Rossiter vocally conjures his inner Jeff Buckley once more through the shape-shifting beauty of “Lark”. Though a whopping 12 minutes long, this is both quintessential Young Jesus and the potential of Young Jesus fully realized, as we see the outfit milking the fun of being a band to its last drop. Following three minutes of tangled improvisations of drums and dynamic diversions of guitar coalescing into necessary chaos, the seven-minute mark sees the group bring the tempo down considerably.

Closing an album defined by a bevy of crescendoing emotion and bellowing instrumentals was undoubtedly daunting for Young Jesus, and yet “Magicians”, through each moment of its 10 minutes, proves to be nothing short of spectacular. Led by the fragile but profound quality of Rossiter’s whisper, Young Jesus meticulously weave together this show-stopping finale through glitches of panning electronics, gentle bits of piano, swooning guitars, and a cascading wall of spacey synthesizers. As soon as Rossiter delivers the track’s parting words, “Our love is the greater bruise / The bridge to everlasting every day,” his hushed quivers give way to a 40-second explosion of sound that more than validates its 10-minute run-time.  

In all of the album’s slow-churning delightfulness, both lyrically and musically, Young Jesus have succeeded in striking an aural balance between meditative and unpredictable that simultaneously positions listeners inward and on their toes. Welcome to Conceptual Beach lacks the slightly angered explosiveness of albums past, which may be unfortunate news for those who’ve fallen in love with the band through their drawn-out, hyperactive live performances. But, as they explore and weave in and out of structure seamlessly, Young Jesus sound like they’re having more fun than any band – while maintaining delicacy and emotionality. Their past two records hinted at this truth, but this new offering is the full manifestation; all it took was a trip to the beautiful simplistic world of Rossiter’s Conceptual Beach to tap into this potential.