So Youth Lagoon gets a B Plus.
In addition to all the other life drags and piss reservoirs that I’ve been suffering through recently (see: two posts ago), today a poem I spent, legit, months writing, rewriting, wrestling with and finally getting to a point I was happy with got rejected from the only place I had submitted it thus far. Mostly at this point, rejections of my work don’t phase me- they’re just a part of the process. But this one stung because I had put so much into this poem and was working through some pretty intense emotional stuff in it. But the poem was rejected and the editors’ comments said that they felt lost, and that the writer (this guy) was trying to say something, but what exactly that thing was, wasn’t yet clear.
They called the title a missed opportunity, and my initial reaction was to submit the work to other literary journals with the title “I’m really fucking sick of having people tell me they don’t know what is going on in my poetry, so here’s a poem about a physical and emotional breakdown I had in an alley behind Fullerton Avenue spurred on by a month-long-lapse in prescription anti-depressants and about everything I had put stock in, in my life, falling apart or walking away from me.” I didn’t do that, and, you know what? With a few hours distance and a few listen-throughs of The Year of Hibernation, Youth Lagoon’s debut album, I can see that their comments are entirely right.
Youth Lagoon is the fuzzy project of Trevor Powers, a young guy from Boise, Idaho. His music has a post-rock vibe, which is to say, the audio equivalent of watching bison stirring slowly beneath fourth of july fireworks from the backbed of a pickup trucks speeding away as your brother swats away horseflys. But there are vocals here, and that’s where things get very tricky.
Youth Lagoon do something very unusual with the vocals in their song. They push them right up front, in front of the drum machines, stepping keyboards, the cradling bass. But despite being right up there, listeners have absolutely no idea of what Youth Lagoon mastermind Trevor Powers is singing. His voice is so fuzzed up that you can’t decipher a syllable. And that is dumb.
There are plenty of post-rock bands who use vocals in almost the same way. Mogwai does it, but when they do, the vocals are further down in the mix, almost there as a percussion instrument. Wu Lyf and Sigur Ros have vocals you can decipher, but Sigur Ros invented their own language and Wu Lyf mumble right up until they shout exactly the words they want you to remember.
But Youth Lagoon, it would appear, is singing in English. And the melodies to these songs seem emotional enough that you have to assume the songs mean something to Powers. But listeners, at least those not willing to use a lyric website as a loose guide to what those syllables might be, will never know. And this is obnoxious. Everything else on this album is really compelling- the music itself arches brilliantly and each song has an apex that’s fresh and surging. But those vocals, those muffled vocals, half-ruin this for me.
Maybe Powers is just especially ashamed of his lyrics. That’s fine; I’m a writer and I’m ashamed of about 75 percent of the poetry I write. But then don’t put the vocals there, and if you simply must put them there, don’t put them right in listeners face so they can ALMOST know what is going on. Doing so is a tease, and, chances are, the mystery won’t be nearly as compelling to any of your audience as it seems to you. (excepting, of course, these guys, but god, I wish they would take a cue from Youth Lagoon sometimes). After all is said and done, no matter how much time I spent on that poem, and no matter how good I think it is, if people can’t understand what I’m saying, the thing needs to be clearer.