Album Review: Youth Lagoon – The Year of Hibernation

[Fat Possum; 2011]

Having started Youth Lagoon in 2010, Trevor Powers has had the ideal rookie year in indie pop. In this short amount of time, he made waves on Bandcamp and blogs, recorded a debut for release on Fat Possum, and embarked on his first national tour. It’s the perfect set-up for his brand of cavernous, delicate indie pop.

The preliminary buzz isn’t baseless; The Year of Hibernation is a completely emotive and usually spell-binding debut that brings to mind the spacious, after-dark ambiance of bands like The xx or Beach House. Layer that with lo-fi vocals and delicate keyboards, work in a rousing climax or interlude, and you have a decent idea of what to expect on this 8 track debut.

The first noticeable facet of Youth Lagoon is Powers’ singing voice. It has an adolescent fragility and a slight quiver to it, even when he turns it all the way up for dramatic climaxes, like on the standout single “July.” He obscures it to sometimes unintelligible lo-fi quality as a way of creating distance, so that you are merely overhearing these personal, confessional pieces. It’s easy to imagine walking in on these songs in an abandoned mansion, or hearing them through old family vacation film. Yet, even though it creates so much atmosphere, the relentless reverb can stop you from taking his lyrics to heart. Powers is a good enough writer that sometimes you just want to be able to discern a whole song.

Despite being as new as newcomers get, his sound is surprisingly developed, confident and clear. That deceptive seasoning comes through in his nostalgia on songs like “17.” At 22 years old, it may sound silly for Powers to be sentimental for the good old days, but as Youth Lagoon he inhabits a convincing wisdom that avoids the traps of naivete and self-importance. Album opener “Posters,” a song about the dreams of a 9-year old and his withdrawal over time, reminds us that we do most of our changing in those first couple of decades.

But the greatest weapon in Youth Lagoon’s arsenal is his ability to straddle the line between vulnerable quietude and upbeat, hook-centric pop. He plays with the contrast so easily and effectively that his songs will come alive with the flip of a switch, and it is satisfying every single time. It always starts off with some fragile keyboard touches and his distinct voice barely crawling over it. Then, a rousing guitar jam invades, a crisp off-center beat with digital hand claps punches through, and the layers pile on until it reaches head-bobbing critical mass. It’s still understated and simplistic, but comparatively, the effect feels like optimism at the bottom of an abyss.

This also makes the album somewhat formulaic. Only “Daydream,” his longest song at 5 minutes, even attempts to break that format. For the unengaged listener, it might be hard to differentiate the tracks on the first few spins. But Powers knows enough variations on that theme, and does it so damn well that it’s hard to fault him too much for sticking with it. He’s playing to his strengths.

Powers wrote his songs in his Boise, Idaho bedroom and that tidbit caught on into his press. Soon, labels like “bedroom pop” were applied and misconceptions about recording and producing in his bedroom were bred. The myth of the solitary, deeply personal artist launching into the stratosphere is an appealing one. People want to see the distance between past and present, bedroom to record deal, as a long and fast contrail. While The Year of Hibernation doesn’t rocket into the stratosphere so much, it’s still an exemplary debut. It’s still got the heart, enthusiasm and ingenuity to glide comfortably above.