This album is about retreat from the world for a reason: it's a deeply anxious record, one that channels deep anxieties, even as they're crowded with textures we usually find relaxing.
Trevor Powers, the 22-year-old guy behind Youth Lagoon, pulls off a pretty clever trick with The Year of Hibernation. It feels, at first, like a breezy record. The gauzy layers of keys and guitar, those spacious drum-machine beats, Powers' keening vocals with their sense of wonder (something like a more tuneful Daniel Johnston), it all sounds sweet, downright wistful.
Once you dig into the record, though, you get immersed in those hazy textures, and there's some serious worry beneath them. The Year of Hibernation is about retreat from the world for a reason. It's a deeply anxious record, one that channels into Powers' fears, even as he crowds them with tones we generally find relaxing. Opener "Posters" shows this perfectly. The first half of the song features dreamy keys surging in the background while Powers bleats out his feelings. "I used to be outspoken," he admits. "Do anything for anyone's attention." He sings this with a charge to his voice, but then he falters. Things have changed. "You make real friends quickly," he then says, and with a wobbly whisper he adds, "But not me."
From there, a simple bass line comes in like a ticking clock, and when the beat kicks up it is jarring, even frightening. It's not a surge of energy, it's a spike of panic. It buries Powers's singing further in the mix, and you can feel the anxiety flowing around him. There's an almost childlike insistence of hope in these songs -- "I have more dreams than you have posters of your favorite teams," he assures us on "Cannons" -- but it too often seems small in comparison to the mounting tension. The best moments of the record cut through that miasmic tension with a sharp guitar riff, as on "Posters" or "Afternoon". In other places, Powers's otherwise obscured vocals -- they're often rendered impossible to understand by a thick cloud of echo and hiss -- clear and deliver a sweet sentiment or heartbreaking worry, or sometimes both. "When I was 17, my mother said to me 'Don't stop imagining'," he sings on "17". "The day that you do is the day that you die." It's a sweet ode to youthful, even naïve hope, and to the support of family, but it's also troubling, since Powers sounds so often close to losing that imagination.
How he composes these tracks is awfully imaginative, though, combining the dreamy keys and beats of electro-pop with the tense guitars of jangle-pop to create something decidedly moodier than either of those. His imagination does falter, though, when it comes to relating this anxiety to us as an audience. We get a vague idea of what this fear feels like -- the music is evocative enough -- but as the album's title implies, this is often an insular affair. The trouble with hibernation is that it wholly closes the subject off from its habitat, from the world, which makes it a pretty tough study. Similarly, Powers -- only as a musical persona, by the way -- feels too removed from us. A line here or there lays fear out plainly but indistinctly, so this doesn't always resonate as much as it could. In the end, this captures one experience and we need some conduit, some specifics among all these blurred sounds and sentiments, to understand this in any concrete way.
The Year of Hibernation needs what T.S. Eliot called the "objective correlative" (if you'll excuse the nerdy literary reference). To launch it to greatness, this album needs details, images, even more defined musical parts that make this specific anxiety something we can all recognize. It doesn't need to be universal; it just needs to be more inviting and less insular, less about intense, sometimes shapeless feeling, and more about what it could mean, how it could resonate. There's a compelling musician under all these layers -- of sound and worry -- we just need a few more peeled away for us to see him fully.