A few weeks ago, Trevor Powers, the 26-year-old songwriter who performs as Youth Lagoon, posted a video of himself on Twitter. Standing in what looks like a suburban living room, Powers flaps his arms and shakes his hips to a reggae groove playing in the background, his black curls sticking out under a bright pink hat. “Dancing isn’t about looking good,” he deadpans above the clip, “it’s about looking damn good.” Watching the video, it’s hard to believe that he’s the same guy who wrote and orchestrated Savage Hills Ballroom, an album oozing with harsh nihilism and dread, sung mostly in an agonized and pained voice. But that contrast reveals the magic at the heart of Powers’ third album: while themes of death and despair pervade its lyrics, they are constantly countered by sparkling melodies and Powers’ inventive, curveball arrangements. Instead of bouncing off each other like oil and vinegar, these extremes interlace to present a complex portrait of a musician who manages to have a blast in the studio despite the multitude of dark thoughts weighing on him. Savage Hills Ballroom operates like a Trojan horse; it appears as a colossus of mourning and sadness, but as it worms its way into your ear, you realize that you’re listening to one of the most exuberant records of the year.
Nowhere is this contrast more apparent than on “The Knower,” which begins with Powers croaking, “Everyone wants to think that they won’t grow old, but they keep aging,” in a voice that threatens to crumble into nothingness before a full cast of instruments, including a stately trumpet, appear. Suddenly, the track that began as a defeated, miserable dirge has swelled into a full-fledged explosion of colors and tones. “If you write dark lyrics and you really embrace this whole ‘heavy persona’ full on, it kind of loses it,” Powers explains. “There has to be a bit of contrast to make something interesting.”
At the heart of “The Knower,” and almost every track on Savage Hills Ballroom, is a bulletproof vocal melody. While Powers’ voice often got lost in the maximalist jungle of his last album, 2013’s Wondrous Bughouse, now his melodies serve as focal points, lighting the way forward. Powers cites the Beach Boys, John Denver and the Carpenters—music his dad played for him growing up—as much of the inspiration for his vocals, and those artists’ steadfast commitment to melody is on full display here. (In 2011, Powers covered Denver’s “Goodbye Again,” for Sirius Radio—with the addition of some strange synthesizers, it wouldn’t sound out of place on Savage Hills Ballroom.) “No One Can Tell” culminates in a chorus, sung in falsetto, that I suspect Janet Jackson would love to get her hands on, and the titular lyric of “Free Me” is destined to lodge itself in your head with the persistence of the best of Top 40 pop.
These melodies appear all the more radiant against the backdrop of perplexing sounds and textures that Powers crafted with the help of producer Ali Chant in Bristol, England. “Again” is grounded in a gurgling synthesizer, eventually cut through by unexpected, deep slashes of howling noise, while “Highway Patrol Stun Gun” features another synth, this one pulsing and flashing like a deathly strobe light. Even the album’s two piano-led instrumental tracks, “Doll’s Estate” and “X-Ray,” are underscored by the unsettling, throbbing tones of a vintage variophone, which adds an element of surprise and menace to the elegant cadences of the plinking keys. “I like making things sound clouded—having a substantial melody or any musical idea and putting it behind drapes, and making people work for it a little bit,” Powers told me before ceding that this album is “a little more upfront” than his past efforts. That may be a bit of an understatement; even the most alien sounds on Savage Hills Ballroom feel urgent and immediate, charged with the same intensity as the bright yellow letters on the album’s cover.
Pop music has a long history of disguising sorrow as sweetness. Radiohead’s “No Surprises,” led by a gentle xylophone, still inspires stadium crowds to scream in orgiastic glee even though it’s about being driven to suicide by a miserable job; the Beatles’ “She Said, She Said” conceals morbid fear within a huge, bombastic arrangement; the Police’s “Every Breath You Take” still ranks as one of the most beloved pop songs ever, even though it’s creepy as hell. Why? Because we get bored otherwise. There’s a reason people make fun of bands that become caricatures of any single emotion. Human beings are complex, and we think contrasting thoughts all the time. On Savage Hills Ballroom, Youth Lagoon’s Trevor Powers captures that complexity effortlessly, producing an album that not only demonstrates a heightened sense of maturity, but refuses to relinquish, for even a moment, a giddy, youthful curiosity.