In and Out of Youth and Lightness
This Will Destroy You
There’s that saying that everyone has one novel in them. Similarly, anyone with even a modest helping of musical talent has one album in them. Two albums, however, is an entirely other matter, hence the “sophomore slump”. When you start a musical project, every grouping of notes you cobble together, even the most played-out three-chord sequence, is your own. Ideas come naturally. But once that first album comes out, the band becomes a part of the public’s consciousness and is forever subject to scrutiny against their past work. The band must now strike a balance between moving forward creatively and holding on to the essence of their identity. Great records stem from bold new moves, but drastic new directions also occasionally yield dismal failures. Being a self-aware artist is tricky.
Both Young Widows and This Will Destroy You are venturing into new territory after establishing promising precedents. Young Widows’ second album, Old Wounds, was a compelling and authoritative update on the darker side of the Touch & Go catalog. While their debut contained obvious nods to Shellac’s harrowing economy and Jesus Lizard’s deliberate, tightly wound frenzy, Old Wounds harnessed these principles while projecting a character all its own. It was patient, steady, sophisticated, and on the verge of bursting with brainy machismo. This Will Destroy You tapped into the post-rock crowd with their Young Mountain debut. Their influences were obvious: Explosions In The Sky provided the blueprint for their cascading delay-soaked guitars and melancholic melodies while Mogwai lent the distorted crunch and electronic embellishments. Despite its derivative tendencies, Young Mountain was a fine record. But the self-titled full-length that followed was the true gem. Rather than trying to tell a whole story in one song, the band embraced repetition by constructing songs around one musical phrase, reinforcing its beauty by hammering through it over and over again. Both Young Widows and TWDY managed to dodge the sophomore slump by refining their formulas, but had to figure out how to evolve from their nearly flawless second offerings.
In and Out of Youth and Lightness starts with “Young Rivers”, a syncopated affair of sparse percussion, layers shimmering reverb guitar, and half-spoken/half-sung vocals. After three minutes of fragmented instrumentation, the song opens into a somber, droning chorus that loops over and over for another three minutes. There’s no distortion or jagged guitars until the second track, “Future Heart”. And here we have what is quite possibly one of Young Widows strongest songs to date. Their signature assets—slabs of dirty bass, deliberate and heavy-handed drumming, trebled Telecaster squalls, and sneering vocal hooks—are all in full bloom. But at song three, Young Widows reinforce their M.O. for the album. “In and Out of Lightness” sounds like a morose Fugazi playing at half-speed in a cavern. If you can get on board with that sound, you’re set for the album. Folks still riding high on Old Wounds’ muscular arrangements, however, might find this overcast version of the band a little disheartening. The main emphases for In and Out of Youth and Lightness are vocal melodies and creating a sonic space that sounds denser and wider than your standard three-man operation. In that regard, Young Widows are very successful. Songs like “Miss Tambourine Wrist” and “Muted Man” offer the meaty and succinct instrumentation the band is known for, but for the most part the album reaches for a smokier, darker, and more expansive sound. It makes for a difficult listen—I used to play Old Wounds start-to-finish repeatedly, whereas one pass of In and Out of Youth and Lightness is enough to make me want to grab a drink and throw on some Leonard Cohen just to lighten the mood. But it still draws you in and begs for a second, third, fifteenth, fortieth chance. It won’t be ignored.
Things don’t get any sunnier with Tunnel Blanket. It starts with “Little Smoke”, a song so quiet and murky you might wonder if your turntable is dying. Even when the drums finally kick in a third of the way through the song, the pulse is like Jesu on their deathbed. Tunnel Blanket is sloooooow. And glum. This is kind of record you listen to in a dark room with headphones on, preferably after a hefty dose of NyQuil. If This Will Destroy You tested peoples’ patience on their self-titled LP, they are weeding out all but the most committed minimalist enthusiasts on their latest album. A few songs nod to TWDY’s past—“Communal Blood” delivers hefty washes of effected guitar to form an ominous, looming dirge; “Killed The Lord” hints at Sigur Ros’ recent work with a thumping kick pattern and the record's only uplifting chord arrangement. But for the most part, the obvious post-rock tricks are gone; there’s not even one clean guitar tone on the record. In their wake is an undulating bath of droning static and electric hums gurgling out sublime melodies. Adding to the difficulty of the record is its back-loaded sequencing. Album closer “Powdered Hand” is easily the pinnacle of Tunnel Blanket; its steady shadowy purr hangs on one note while a modest array of complimentary notes bubble out of the murky waters of the song. The album is a hard sell for fans of post-rock’s easy sentimentality, but fans of ambient, drone, and doom will undoubtedly get sucked in to Tunnel Blanket’s graceful gloom.
With such striking new approaches by both bands, the inevitable question is whether their artistic gambles are successful. Fortunately, both Young Widows and This Will Destroy You retain their core aesthetics with their bold new sounds. Widows still convey detached disdain and display tactical restraint with their use of volume, distortion, and dynamics; TWDY still bask in narcoleptic grandeur. But both In and Out of Youth and Lightness and Tunnel Blanket are difficult works. It’s unlikely anyone is going to be floored by a first listen. Both bands opted to scale back on their dramatic approaches for more subdued arrangements and sullen ambience. In both instances, it may not be what fans want out of new albums, but if the ability to rework their sound allows Young Widows and This Will Destroy You to remain vital and engaging, In and Out of Youth and Lightness and Tunnel Blanket might be exactly what audiences need in the long run.