Savage Hills Ballroom by Youth Lagoon (2015)

In the lead-up to his 2011 debut The Year of Hibernation, Trevor Powers (aka Youth Lagoon) quit the counselling he was receiving for psychological dysphoria and put his energy into his music instead. The album served as a catharsis, bringing him out of his shell. Its largely ambient minimalist style with haunting melodies suited the subject matter well, but was also balanced out by a few uplifting moments. The music was like a bittersweet cocoon which Powers crafted around his fragile vocals, enabling him to express his feelings. The response was largely a positive one.

The direction of 2013’s follow-up Wondrous Bughouse caught many off guard. In the lead-up to his second album Powers had become interested in metaphysics and aimed to channel what he had learned into his music. The result was a neo-psychedelic pop kaleidoscope bursting with colour and detail. It was the opposite of his debut, but despite the change in his overall sound his vocals still retained an element of fragility underneath the all the reverb. The songs were longer, more expansive and playful, but it left some who had enjoyed his first album a little disappointed.

On Savage Hills Ballroom Powers takes his music in another new direction. His inspirations here are people’s efforts to hide their flaws and the barriers they put up in the process, focussing on things like suburban living and social media. The sound he’s gone for this time is a mix of chamber and art pop, with elements of dream pop and electronic experimentation. The overall production is more radio friendly, with his vocals taking a step forward from behind the reverb which has been stripped away. But the price of a cleaner sound is that it exposes the flaws in his voice. To record the album Powers went to Bristol, England to work with Ali Chant, producer of Perfume Genius’ more open and polished third album, 2014’s Too Bright.

“Officer Telephone” opens the album with a surprise burst of breakbeat towards the end of the song, signalling the more experimental tone. ‘Highway Patrol Stun Gun’ is a more straight forward piano-led melancholic pop number featuring a nice touch of cello. “The Knower” builds from an intimate beginning to electronic effects, horns and crashing cymbals. “Doll’s Estate” is the first of two instrumentals and is a beautiful piano-led piece where feedback slowly creeps into view, momentarily taking over towards the end. After a fairly solid first half, ‘Rotten Human’ begins a more unmemorable second, revealing his weak vocals, particularly during its opening moments. If there’s one highlight of this part of the album it’s probably “Again” with its contrast of calm and more industrial sounds which closes with a slow techno beat and echoing sax.

Savage Hills Ballroom is a more poppy but also experimental album that will likely divide some fans of his earlier works. You have to admire Powers’ willingness to push his music in new directions, even if it doesn’t quite pay off this time around, with the album largely being let down by its weaker second half. Despite this it will certainly be interesting to see which direction is chooses to go in next, whether he tries to perfect his current sound or again goes for a different approach.

Top Tracks: Highway Patrol Stun Gun; The Knower; Again

Released: 25 September 2015

Label: Fat Possum

Genres: Chamber Pop; Art Pop; Dream Pop

Rating: 6/10

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