Dev Hynes just turned 22, but he sings and plays with the aplomb of a pop star. Part of his appeal, I suspect, will be the uncertainty with which he navigates the waters of young adulthood. This comes through as strongly on his blog as anywhere else, where he talks about waking up alone on his birthday, dealing with hateful commenters, spelling with the abandon of Thom Yorke. Yes, we’ve heard of his past with aggressive punk-rockers Test Icicles, but now it’s his own music as Lightspeed Champion that’s being talked about. This youngster has a fresh take on Britpop to sell us.
Falling Off the Lavender Bridge was recorded in Omaha, Nebraska, with Saddle Creek producer Mike Mogis, and the album benefits from the experienced professional’s sure hand. Orchestrations are full-sounding and take advantage of a variety of instruments — violin, cello, horns, wind instruments, etc. From light pizzicato passages to rolling piano balladry, it’s rare that a whole song goes by without myriad textural changes, pauses in the beat, or high-soaring choruses. This keeps what might otherwise slip into familiar pop territory from ever being by-the-numbers. Over the top of it all, Hynes’s voice has a smooth immediacy and a strong pop sensibility. Occasionally, it’s even a bit too pleasant for the loneliness and dislocation that make up Hynes’ principal subjects.
The central song on the album is “Midnight Surprise”, a ten-minute odyssey through a variety of catchy melodies, orchestral passages, and youthful vitriol. One line will be particularly quoted for its twist on the cliche “wake up and smell the coffee”. Framed by the visions appearing to Hynes in an erotically-charged dream, the song has a hint of “Hotel California”, but establishes its own pleasant groove. When it recurs, re-interpreted as “No Surprise (For Wendela)/Midnight Surprise”, it gives the album an adequately epic send-off. (And it’s better than the acoustic version that appeared on Lightspeed Champion’s earlier EP, Galaxy of the Lost.)
A pair of songs in the final third of the album showcase Hynes’ avowed interest in country music, one more successfully than the other. “Everyone I Know Is Listening to Crunk” has the lilting nature of country music. but without quite the soul. The song’s all wrapped up in itself, and cannot allow the accompaniment the natural space it needs to breathe. Better is “Let the Bitches Die”, in which a sprightly banjo revs up and releases, and Hynes and backup singer Emmy the Great trade lamentations over (what appears to be) the main character’s inability to connect with someone physically.
A few places make Hynes’s debt to Connor Oberst more explicit. “Devil Tricks for a Bitch” takes a very Bright Eyes-type melody over an orchestral background that could have appeared on Cassadaga. But most of the time Hynes’s melodic sensibility’s his own. Listen to “Dry Lips”, with its classic, large-scale chorus, and you’ll see what I mean.
Lightspeed Champion may well be lumped with Mika’s Life in Cartoon Motion as examples of a new, more exuberant form of Britpop that’s perhaps a little too forthrightly camp to be unequivocally taken up by the American pop-consuming public. Even so, Falling Off the Lavender Bridge is a confident and enjoyable introduction to Hynes’ latest musical project. One that, if quality’s any indication, should last a lot longer than his last.