The music of Trevor Powers, aka Youth Lagoon, is sad. His latest album, “Savage Hills Ballroom,” begins like this: “My legs are limp/ My shoes are cold stone/ All I want is for you to come back home.” Powers sings in a cracked, androgynous yowl over melancholy piano chords—the saddest trope in a pop singer’s arsenal. But after two verses, the song, titled “Officer Telephone,” expands suddenly into a propulsive electronic jam. Sadness, Powers seems to be saying, may be a bigger and more powerful thing than we think.
“Savage Hills Ballroom” was written in the aftermath of the sudden death of one of Powers’s close friends. After receiving the news, he cancelled his European tour and returned home to Idaho. “Savage Hills Ballroom” is consequently sometimes painted as being about that tragedy, which Powers says is not entirely the case.
“I have to say that whole thing has gotten really blown out of proportion,” Powers tells me recently over the phone, a few days before he embarks on tour for “Savage Hills Ballroom.” Youth Lagoon plays the Paradise Rock Club in Boston on Oct. 30. “It’s just like anything. You tell someone one thing and suddenly that’s all people see online. It’s absolutely insane to me, it’s so ridiculous. But yeah, everyone has those people that pass away, and that’s just life. That’s just s--- that you have to deal with. And I think when my friend passed away, it did shock me and it moved me in a lot of different ways artistically, but by no means is this album about his death.”
In fact, “Savage Hills Ballroom” seems to be less about grief than the profound alienation of modern life. The characters in Powers’s songs struggle with a sense of emptiness and display almost histrionic self-loathing. The real difference between “Savage Hills Ballroom” and Youth Lagoon’s previous work is its texture. His 2013 album “Wondrous Bughouse” was dense and experimental, a synth-laden concoction that wavered deliriously on the edge of noise. On “Savage Hills Ballroom,” which was recorded in Bristol, England, with producer Ali Chant, Powers’s voice is mixed more prominently and his arrangements are often bare. Within the album’s chilly electronic set pieces it is sometimes possible to pick out a baritone saxophone, murmuring mournfully. And even in the music’s flashiest moments, Powers’s voice and piano still take center stage.
There’s something about the hyperbolic melancholy of his songs that Powers says he finds extremely amusing. It’s like he’s singing his own private jokes to himself.
“I’m by no means a miserable person,” says Powers, laughing. “And I think when people hear this album they think I’m some sad bastard that lives in the middle of nowhere. And I like that, I think it’s funny.”
It’s a surprising revelation, but on closer inspection Powers’s lyrics do hold up to a more ironic reading. They aren’t purely satirical, but they aren’t completely earnest, either. These are the ugly beliefs that we all secretly carry, clinging to the underbellies of our conscious thoughts. By dressing them up in dramatic garb and singing them out loud, Powers reveals how absurd they really are. “Oh, everybody wants to think they’re not what they ate, that their body’s great,” he sings on “The Knower.” “Oh, everybody wants to think that they’re good at heart, when they’re full of hate.”
“Just because I think it’s funny doesn’t mean I don’t believe it,” says Powers. “But I think everyone does. We all, we have this view of ourselves that’s not the actual view of who we are. Like when we look in the mirror, we see something, but when other people look at it they’re seeing totally different things. And I think, as people, we try to ignore the sort of aspects we need to work on in our lives. What s----- parts make up our personalities. And everyone has those. That’s what makes people individuals—it’s not the good, it’s the bad.”
I ask Powers if he thinks people have the capacity to change, or if we’re all ultimately at the mercy of our flaws. Definitely, he says. I ask him if he feels happy.
“I think I’m a very happy person, yeah,” he replies, and laughs. “What about yourself?”
I hesitate. “I’m one of those people that can worry about anything, even when I’m happy,” I say.
Powers tells me that he’s the same way. He used to be very anxious, but has learned to put destructive thoughts in a special place in his mind. It’s like a filing cabinet, he says. I picture a drab metal box in a cobwebbed corner of a shadowy room, vibrating softly with the potency of the thoughts it contains.
But, I point out, even though he files those thoughts away, he still sings about them. The words to “Rotten Human” come to mind: “Lying awake for eight hours straight/ Human, I am a rotten human.”
“Well I think that’s because, even if you file a destructive thought away in your mental file cabinet, it’s still in you. So it’s still going to come out in your subconscious, or any way you express yourself,” says Powers. “I’ll file these thoughts away, but they’re still inside me. They’re still living. They’re not dead.”