As if to answer the charge that his debut navel-gazed and its follow-up meandered, Trevor Powers’s third album as Youth Lagoon announces his newfound forthrightness with a minimalist cover design. Savage Hills Ballroom it reads in yellow text, embroidered on blue, followed by a subtitle: “A Collection of 10 Songs by Youth Lagoon.” Sure enough, while hardly the pilgrimage to pre-Sgt. Pepper rock n’ roll purity suggested by the cover’s retro block lettering, Savage Hills Ballroom is forceful and formally rigorous in a fashion yet unseen from Powers. It’s a tale as old as Bob Dylan: A once-taciturn, still-young artist, fresh from a few years of touring and good press, amps up the rhythms, dials down the whimsy, and embraces the extroverted energy of playing to a big crowd.
The shift is an unsteady one. Powers doesn’t sound so sure about singing to the cheap seats, and depends on multi-tracked harmonies to carry him across soaring choruses and torch-song bridges on “No One Can Tell,” “Kerry,” and “Officer Telephone.” Where The Year of Hibernation and Wondrous Bughouse presented him in shy soft focus, producer Ali Chant mixes him front and center here, and the clarity is double-edged. Powers is blessed with one of the more appealingly idiosyncratic voices in indie rock, a kind of eunuchoid Appalachian warble, and Chant brings out its creakiness and throaty vitality in equal measure. But Powers has never been much of a poet, and once the psychedelic thicket of reverb and organ grinders that distinguished his earlier albums is cleared away, the extent of his lyrical wit is made painfully clear: “Every night, a 12-pack/Stoned, they’re all stoned/We want the hours back/Television soundtrack/Drones,” he sings on “Rotten Human.”
Its similarly trite social commentary notwithstanding (“Everybody wants to think they’re not what they ate, that their body’s great/Everybody wants to think that they’re good at heart, when they’re full of hate”), “The Knower” represents the album’s most unqualified triumph. The swift crescendo from aching soliloquy to prolonged trumpet aria is a stirring testament to what could happen when Powers goes all Florence and the Machine on his simple, sticky homespun hooks. The rest of Savage Hills Ballroom, for the most part, is more routine, even commercial. Formulaic radio-rock structures, midtempo beats, and pristine, spiraling pianos balanced by tasteful splashes of distortion make for sad-guy stadium pop with a slight edge—suggesting Coldplay fronted by Joanna Newsom.
Most peculiar is “Again,” which awkwardly channels the trip-hop sound native to Bristol, where Powers and Chant recorded. There’s no reason the Boise-based Powers shouldn’t make himself at home in more urbane sonic settings as he progresses artistically. But so much of the lasting charm of past Youth Lagoon singles like “Dropla” and “Afternoon” is that they’re both submerged in, and looking back on, a naïve feeling of wonder and wanderlust. On Savage Hills Ballroom, Powers seems much too concerned with slick sophistication that doesn’t quite suit him.