One of the easiest ways to turn a melancholy composition into a chilling piece of music is to shroud it in atmosphere. This is of course, no shocking insight, but it’s worth noting simply because it has become such a common, if almost instantly gratifying, tool in recent years, enhancing countless indie records in a number of different genres. It’s a trick Youth Lagoon, AKA Trevor Powers, is very familiar with. On his debut The Year of Hibernation, Powers takes his personal confessions and dresses them up in intricate, yet stark, echoing works. The paradox is that as intimate as the songs feel at times, the extra layers of reverb can also give the listener the impression that they were beamed in from another galaxy.
Lo-fi production techniques alone can go a long way to adding the aforementioned atmosphere, and the vocals featured on Hibernation are certainly obscured. The most obvious comparison is Perfume Genius, another recent artist who sustains a vulnerable tenor through what sounds like very inexpensive mics. Much like Mike Hadreas of Perfume Genius, Powers has a way with leaving the listener ruminating on naked confessions that don’t always sit easy. A metaphor of pulling a one-ton carriage can only cloak so much when it’s followed up with the question “who is there to talk to who won’t lock me up?” Likewise, on the opener, “Posters,” Powers laments “you make real friends quickly/ but not me,” driving right to the heart of his grief. Powers himself has admitted that listening to The Year of Hibernation is a bit like peering into his journal. Luckily, his tales of lost love are evocative and poetic enough to keep most of the lyrics from becoming too weepy. On top of that, many lines are so buried in reverb that you have to dig to find them; it makes them just that much more chilling.
Powers’ aching voice and straightforward openness are most often coupled with an echoing Rhodes and lean guitar work. The riffs employed aren’t too far away from the Antlers, but at the same time, they aren’t nearly as bracing. They are both ethereal and anthemic, and nearly always memorable. Powers also manages to address one of the most common problems to arise in “bedroom” artists; he has put in the necessary time honing these songs so that there is real movement in each one. “Posters” starts with nothing more than a Rhodes and some haunting sounds, but soon the drum machine kicks in and guitar and synth leads take over. The guitar line and drum machine are sure to remind some of the nimble work of the xx, which is appropriate, as there many aesthetic similarities here; you might think of Hibernation as the solo alternative to the xx’s duo.
Ultimately, it’s Powers’ ability to draw out unique touches in each song that enables Hibernation‘s success. Listen to the way “17” picks up an unexpected groove midway through, transforming the song instantly into something you can bob your head along to. It’s a remarkable shift that isn’t exactly the most obvious direction for such a restrained record, but it’s also the kind of thing that elevates Hibernation above the countless others out there with similar projects. In addition, it’s these ambitious touches that further show Youth Lagoon to be a project with real promise; Powers isn’t afraid to step out of a perceived comfort zone. There’s a lot of potential here, but don’t let that distract you from the luminous record we already have.
Stream: Youth Lagoon – “Montana”