Trevor Powers has the kind of fragility in his voice that when you hear it you feel at any time during a song he may just disappear into thin air. A pin hole leak in a balloon that slowly releases air into the world. Any kind of pressure or pushing will cause a bevy of oxygen forward. Too much, and he explodes. That’s been the beauty of Youth Lagoon for the last few years. The Year Of Hibernation was this intimate concert taking place in Powers’ bedroom. Hip hop beats, synth, and Trevor’s upper register squeak, all hidden in a lo-fi sephia tone. On 2013s Wondrous Bughouse Powers got together with producer Ben H. Allen and created one of that year’s best records. A psychedelic swirl of paisley patterns and LSD fever dreams. He opened his sound up from the bedroom to something bigger; the universe. He used that colorful musical palate to lessen the blow of the lyrical content, which dealt a lot with death and existentially losing it. Now, it seems Trevor Powers and Youth Lagoon have come to a nearl full circle with Savage Hills Ballroom. Gone are the psychedelic and hallucinogenic flourishes of Wondrous Bughouse, and the lo-fi bedroom tracks seem to have been left in the, well, bedroom. Savage Hills Ballroom is a straight up modern pop record. It sounds like something you’d hear on some trendy new television show; or on a promo for some trendy new television show. That’s not necessarily a slight on the album, but it’s not necessarily an asset, either.
Let me say first that the songs are still here. Trevor Powers hasn’t lost his ability to write beautifully skewed and painfully intimate songs. They’re still here. The problem is that clean production can at times make the songs come across blander than they really are. “Officer Telephone” opens the album inconspicuously enough, with Powers voice as clear and naked as you’ve ever heard it. Pretty soon some modern studio flourishes come rolling in, bringing the song to an almost NIN-lite conclusion. “Highway Patrol Stungun” is an example of this new found studio sheen working for Powers. It’s a clear-eyed and beautifully haunting track. It is reminiscent of some of those breathless moments Ben Folds used to give us. Another wonderful moment here is “Kerry”. Strikingly beautiful and lyrically a tale of pain and addiction. I can’t help but bring up the Ben Folds reference again. Without the lo-fi aesthetic and psychedelic broad strokes Trevor Powers comes out sounding very much like the nineties “Piano Man”.
There are moments, though, that could’ve used some colorful swirls or grainy images. “No One Can Tell” comes across like an 80s new wave throwback track. While there’s nothing wrong with that, the song could’ve used some of those Ben H. Allen flourishes. “Again” falls too hard for interesting noises and sparseness and not enough for emotional connection. There is emotion here, but it’s not highlighted like it should be.
Savage Hills Ballroom isn’t a stumble by any means. There are some amazing tracks here; “Rotten Human”, “Free Me”, and “The Knower” to name a few more I haven’t already mentioned. This album feels more like a holding position for Youth Lagoon and Trevor Powers. He’s stepped out from behind the curtain of production and sonic layers and has given us a stripped down version of his emotional world. It can be a beautifully bruised listen. Though, with a few more colors added to Savage Hills Ballroom, I think it could’ve been even greater.