Dreaming of a White Weeknd
[Ivywild‘s] genesis can be found in the stoned night in Nashville when Yellen first heard [Kanye West’s] Yeezus. Lying on the floor, Yellen blared the album at top volume. “All the emotions that I had kept inside came flooding out. Being a white nerdy kid from Colorado Springs, I was attracted to that sound. I was tired of being a sad sack like Elliott Smith or Ryan Adams. I wanted to be physical. I wanted to make music that was physical.”
—From the press release to Ivywild
Country Sleep, Night Beds’ 2013, made one thing clear: Winston Yellen has been hurt. Even more than that, it showed that Yellen, the primary songwriter behind the Night Beds name, is better than most at channeling hurt into song. In an age where white male singer/songwriter types are five to a dime, Yellen is a true rarity: a singer with both an astounding voice and a unique style. As if those weren’t enough, he’s one of the most poignant sad bastards in the music world; Country Sleep numbers like “Cherry Blossoms” and “Was I For You?” practically emit tears themselves. The former track fines Yellen pining, “In my soul I’m / aching to grow / longing for a / love I’ve never known”, a lament which culminates in his impassioned plea, “Take me home”. Although his lyrics are never specific in such a way that the listener is given direct access to his life experiences, it’s hard to come out of Country Sleep and not feel like Yellen has tied you to his emotional yoke. Somehow this never feels arduous; in fact, Country Sleep remains one of 2013’s strongest debuts, to say nothing of its status as a contender for the album of that year.
Give Yellen a guitar and a microphone, and he will unspool sorrows so poetic that you immediately get lost in his world. However, Country Sleep‘s highlights are those songs where fuller instrumentation backs Yellen’s heartsongs. The lush keyboard coda to “Was I For You?”, the rollicking indie Americana of “Ramona”, and the twinkling keys on the stunning “Cherry Blossoms” are instrumental choices that sharply accent the music while at the same time letting Yellen’s voice be the star. “Was I For You?” could have been plenty wrenching were it just a spare guitar-and-voice arrangement; many lesser songwriters likely would have kept it that way. With his unfussy and striking arrangements, Yellen stands out in an oversaturated indie scene, avoiding the singer/songwriter cliché and hackneyed lo-fi that has become all too commonplace. Country Sleep still rewards tremendously today, even more than it did upon its 2013 release.
Somewhere beneath the myriad layers and splices of Ivywild, Night Beds’ sophomore outing, there is a record like Country Sleep. Yellen’s voice is unsurprisingly angelic. Lush strings, similar to those that make the outro to “Even If We Try” are delightful as they weave in and out of these compositions. The emotions are pronounced and intense. But make no mistake: Ivywild is as big a leap from Country Sleep as Yellen could have conceived. Gone are the straightforward folk and country stylings; with Ivywild, Night Beds go big on sensual R&B theatrics, booming beats, and songs that flow from one sonic refraction to another, rather than from verses to choruses. Acoustic guitars are relegated to the back of the mix and are used sparingly, and in their stead lush electronic textures and brooding beats rise to the fore. In terms of daring and innovation, a sophomore slump, Ivywild ain’t. This album takes on the more fleshed out arrangements of its predecessor and blows them up to proportions no one could have seen coming.
Comparisons to the Weeknd immediately emerged when Yellen dropped the Ivywild cuts “Tide Teeth” and “Me, Liquor & God” prior to the LP’s release, and not unreasonably so. Both Yellen and the Weeknd’s Abel Tesfaye are mesmerizing tenors, and both do interesting things with the R&B format. Ivywild and the Weeknd’s Trilogy are nocturnal, druggy, bleary-eyed explorations of romantic dissatisfaction and angst, with soaring vocals and melancholy ambiance aplenty. While sadness abounds in Yellen and Tesfaye’s music, the sexual aspect of R&B is still prominent, even though odes to bad love far outweigh any sensual paeans to lovemaking.
However, for all of their congruencies, there is a key difference between Night Beds and the Weeknd. Ivywild is not the sound of Yellen trying to do a Weeknd record; if one picks apart the details of the music closely, it’s easy to imagine that it could have all sounded similar to Country Sleep once upon a time. The R&B sonic of Ivywild doesn’t manifest as merely a new hat for Night Beds try on, but rather as a filter through which to embellish the sounds explored on Country Sleep. Only on weaker moments, like the lustful “Eve A”, does Yellen sound like he’s trying on the costume of an R&B crooner. As such, the transition from the crepuscular-hued singer/songwriter of Country Sleep to the perpetually shifting, almost impossibly moody Ivywild manages to be both entirely logical and completely surprising.
The messy song structures and fragmentary lyrics that make up Ivywild are tricky to follow both in their complexity and emotional heft, and there’s a clear reason why. The press materials for the album cite “a long-term love and a break-up” as foundational to “the album’s veiled lyrics”. “Veiled” is an understatement; even though Country Sleep was clandestine about the sources of its woes even as it expressed them, Ivywild is a hodgepodge of pained sentence fragments that lack any specific context (that is, save for the one provided by the press sheet). On “Me, Liquor & God”, Yellen sings, “I’ve never been in love for myself.” “Melrose” closes with a faintly strummed guitar, atop which Yellen repeats, “Maybe soon”. The groovy and catchy “Corner” asks, “Why do you take it so far?” The other person that these lyrics all hint at is never given a clear picture, and nor is the circumstances of Yellen’s anguish. Be that as it may, like Country Sleep before it, Ivywild makes you feel its pain—and feel it, you will.
Ivywild is chaotic because that’s the way breakups are. Night Beds could have easily written another set of guitar-based tunes for Yellen to lovelily sing the cuts of his heart’s wounds, but such neatness would not have befitted whatever it is he experienced prior to making this LP. The lilting strings of the powerful opening track “Finished”—how apt a title to kick things off—would have worked well in a more plainly arranged number, but they’re especially compelling in the splintered heartache rhapsody of “Finished”. In fact, despite the fairly clear individuation of Ivywild‘s tunes, it’s best to take the record as a whole rather than breaking it into parts. Certain choruses do stand out by the time these 16 tracks are up, but this music is made up of a dizzying amount of small compositional parts that are vexing (and enticing) to pull apart. The songs of Ivywild are their own R&B microsymphonies of pain; or, as Yellen puts it, “a love letter—a debauched, fucked up love letter.” It’s a challenge of a journey to take, but with emotional risk comes musical reward.
If there’s one hiccup in this otherwise inventive sophomore album from Night Beds, it’s length. Ivywild‘s 16 tracks run just over an hour, and it’s a lot to digest. The stretch from “Finished” to “Tide Teeth”—a mere five tracks—is a lot to digest on its own, and sometime after “Melrose”, sorrow fatigue begins to set in. The daunting length of this record is somewhat surprising, given that the original takes of “Me, Liquor & God” and “On High” ran, respectively, 17 and 33 minutes. Ivywild makes it clear that Yellen had a lot to get out, and one certainly has to give it to him for purging what is no small emotional battle. But it’s also plausible, in fact highly likely, that somewhere in the 62 minutes of Ivywild there exists a more succinct iteration of this music that retains all the catharsis without any diminishing returns. Admittedly, the Night Beds editing philosophy is pretty great given their overall aesthetic (“If it makes you cry, keep it in”), but additional self-editing would have kept this phantasmagoria from getting too bloated.
Of course, just as breakups are messy, they’re often lengthy, too. In this way, Ivywild is something like an aural manifestation of what the mind does as it tries to process the dissolution of a love that once was. If that means it isn’t always pleasant to listen to, then, well, that’s just it being honest about the shit that goes down when two people fall out of love with each other. Reliving a breakup is something nobody wants to do for themselves, let alone for other people. Even fans of breakup albums might find Ivywild too overpowering, and they wouldn’t be wrong for thinking so; there’s a lot going on here. But the daring of Night Beds here is commendable, and overstuffed though it is, Ivywild is a beautiful and haunting album whose only flaw is that it offers too much of a good thing. If one can stomach the excess—to say nothing of the visceral emotional content—then Ivywild will be an enlightening experience into the deep crevasses of melancholy.
“Play me a simple song / So I can sing along”, Yellen sings on Country Sleep‘s “Cherry Blossoms”. Reasonable a request as that is, not all songs can be simple. If nothing else, that’s Ivywild‘s greatest lesson: sometimes, songs and indeed whole albums need to go into erratic territory. So it is with songwriting as it is with love and recovery.
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