It was Kierkegaard, no great lover of West Coast indie rock, who suggested the problem of life was that it was lived forward and understood backwards. This too is the cross-purpose with second records: the way forward is stuck in reverse, a band and an audience unsure of what will happen next, concerned with the memory of the first record, living backwards and forwards at once. Kelcey Ayer, co-lead vocalist for Local Natives, lets his voice sail out over the top of the arrangement on “You & I”, the lead song from sophomore long player Hummingbird, and maybe an attempt to reconcile some of this crossing directionality. Ayer’s brittle, clear tenor breaks into falsetto, wrapping itself around the lyric, “The farther I have to go/to places we don’t know.” Ostensibly about a break up, this line dually serves as a thesis statement for the wandering and powerful follow up to 2009’s debut, Gorilla Manor; uncertainty recast as purpose, a salvaging of youth in the construction site of getting older.
Circumstances shifted under the feet of the Local Natives, a critically acclaimed first record named after the bohemian destruction in the take-all-comers pad where they wrote the album, Gorilla Manor, a functional monkey house. For follow up Hummingbird, Aaron Dessner from the National took production duties in a new studio. As living conditions improved and the goal posts moved, as they often do, for the sophomore release, the band insisted on its youth, gathering itself against this mounting responsibility—the weight of expectations, three years turned long—to forge a dark and hopeful record. If the future remained uncertain, Local Natives managed to shuffle backwards towards it with images of bucolic 20-somethings in tow.
This is not to say, Hummingbird marks a relentlessly upbeat record; youth is pretty in memory only. Aaron Dessner’s production, full of dark edges, rings from the percussion section on down. Most obvious in the rapid-fire drumming on “Wooly Mammoth”, quintessential Local Natives mores retrofitted with a bit of the Dessner’s National veneer, grinding moral victories in the glittering, fake empires of American downtowns. Two songs explicitly name, “black” in their title, including the lively and whip-smart, “Black Balloons”, describing the magically real, black, poisonous text bubbles emerging from the mouth of a significant other. Singers Ayer and Taylor Rice are both doe-eyed and crushed on lyrics like, “everyday is life or death”, as the arrangement, full of group vocals and surging guitars, swells behind them. Even on the slightly more plaintive, “Bowery”, a New York City song obsessed with place and specific time, the band wonders if the floor is dropping or if the ceiling is rising, a hopeless empire of space above and below. The song’s final tweaking guitars are as unsettling as they are pretty.
The sense of finding what was lost is nearly overwhelming, and the way forward lodges firmly in the observation of a passing youth. Evolving back into a discussion of spacial and temporal limiters on track three, “Ceiling”, the band urges the listener to “hold the summer in our hands until the summer turns to sand”. “Heavy Feet” portends a different fatal infinity, summers by the water and lines about how to “out-live your body”, before the refrain offers the complex totality of the morning after on a lyric like, “After everything/left in the sun shivering.” Others are markedly less romantic. “Breakers”, one of the more bombastic cuts, describes the unsexy moments of cold cereal and television before going to sleep. Where Gorilla Manor‘s darkness framed a collective ruggedness, Hummingbird finds its protaganists alone, a new and troubling individualism—on “Black Spot” simply sitting and waiting as an urgent piano calls from the background.
For all its sadness, Hummingbird manages to craft a friscalating, sun-setting, post-adolescence in the rear-view mirror. If the past is past, a heavily-filtered image of a self we never were on an Instagram account now lying fallow, what, then, will the present and future hold? Ayer drills himself on “Colombia”, the album’s most meditative track, with the question, “Every night I ask myself, am I giving enough?” Later, he bends this lyric to, “Am I loving enough?”, a not odd aside for a twentysomething penning a defining record about losing love and the thrown-open French doors of the heart. Substantial optimism creeps from corners, another trap and trope of youth. The album’s most hopeful cut, “Three Months” finds Rice at the top of the room on falsetto chorus, “I’m ready, you know,” the clearest description of a ceaseless, boundless future. In some sense, Hummingbird represents the record that a band like Grizzly Bear couldn’t find the optimism to write. How to weigh these accumulated sadnesses against our maybe irrational sense that life and time bring joy? Will our experiences only pay us in cynicism, however artfully crafted? Local Natives, locked in swirling boxstep with these evolving definitions of happiness and self, darkness and light, past and future, manage to pen a record that is neither weepy nor cold, neither gullible nor world-weary.
These are your 20s, they argue. People will leave you, and you will leave them. You’ll be standing at Bowery and Forsyth with face paint on wondering how the fuck this all happened. You’ll be eating cold cereal and watching television alone. It will be awesome and terrible, or at least it was. On “Heavy Feet”, Rice even tells the woman architecting his sadness that she, “was holy”. The past tense is no mistake here. Like the dead hummingbird of “Colombia”, we were all slices of the divine, lessons of beauty and cross-polination, no matter how awful it seemed at the time.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. We need your help to keep PopMatters strong and growing. Thank you.