Fair warning: this is one of those “high school” albums for me. You know the ones–the albums that helped get you through the times when you were young and everything seemed to have so much weight; the albums that made the world seem bigger when it felt like it was closing in, or smaller when it felt like you were lost in the size of it all.
These types of albums become pretty much indistinguishable from the places and people you listen to them with, and the way you felt when you first heard them. It’s hard to judge them objectively, with all the emotions that get tied up in them. So it doesn’t help that Trevor Powers, aka Youth Lagoon, is such a maestro of nostalgia that he could make me miss a time that never even existed in the first place.
Powers started Youth Lagoon in 2010 at just 21 years old, and his debut, The Year of Hibernation, dropped in 2011. It was a different time, 2011–this was the era of chillwave and witch house. Emotive, atmospheric electronic music could be found anywhere you looked, and The Year of Hibernation seemed to be just another face in the crowd.
But six years on, the album has held up so much better than similar releases from that time. Again, it’s hard for me to be objective about this. But there’s something magnetic to this album, something that makes it worth listening to even if it doesn’t have the power of nostalgia behind it.
For one thing, Powers may have one of the purest ears for melody in recent memory. Album opener “Posters” comes into being with warm, instantly familiar arpeggios. He builds slowly on those bones, adding a layer of synths here, a bed of background vocals there, until the song is a mountain of fuzzy handclaps and soaring keyboards. Every melody has that same sort of familiarity, like a half-remembered lullaby.
He’s an expert of the musical peak–almost every song on the album has a moment of earnest, over-the-top musical joy. It’s in the drumbeats on “Cannons,” the wordless chorus of “Afternoon,” the chest-pounding second half of “July.” It’s an uncomfortable earnestness, a feeling that brings a prickle to the back of your neck. He’s not hiding under layers of detached cool. Quite the opposite: he’s almost unbearably upfront with his feelings. Lines like, “Don’t stop imagining/ The day that you do is the day that you die” from “17” or “I have more dreams than you have posters of your favorite teams” from “Cannons” shouldn’t work, but they do.
Part of the reason they do is because of the actual sound of the album. It’s the sound that tempers the lyrics’ earnestness with a sense of wistfulness and makes the whole production feel like something more than a confessional. Powers makes his bedroom-pop into its own world, one that sounds the way the album cover looks. The walls of this world shake and breathe, and the music sounds like it’s overgrown with organic material. Moss-covered synths echo over vocal lines rising like fog. Melodies fall like rain. Everything is washed in a sun-shower of fuzz.
Powers recorded the album in his friend’s home studio in Boise, and they explored the acoustics of every room in the house to capture the perfect sound. Powers recorded in the shower, in the living room, in the bedroom closet. It’s that topography of home that he captures so well here, in both music and lyrics: the way the meanings of four walls change as you grow older; how a room that once felt so big you could get lost in it, can now feel like it’s keeping you prisoner.
That’s ultimately what it is: an album for the seventeen (or twenty-seven) year old who feels trapped in their bedroom. The name he gave his band is really quite fitting. For 45 minutes, Trevor Powers has you believe youth is a place you can find if you can just get out there. It’s a lagoon in the mountains, overhung with rainbows and ferns, where you can swim in the warm waters for a little while longer.