Saturday, March 26, 2016

Night Beds - Ivywild

When it comes to making an album, an artist doesn't owe their fans anything. I've argued this point numerous times when dealing with entitled fans—listeners who get upset about a band's shift in sound because it doesn't gel with the nostalgic notions they have about that band. Interestingly, though, most people who do defend this argument won't give credence to the flip side, which is that a fan doesn't owe an artist respect or attention when those sonic shifts do take place. On countless occasions, I've actually seen fans talk down to listeners who didn't "get" a band's new sonic direction, playing the "real fan" card and acting like supporting an artist indiscriminately, regardless of the music they choose to make, is the "noble" thing to do.

I've struggled to write this review, because I don't like panning things or writing off an artist's leap of faith as a failure. I didn't want to come across as a snobbish asshole, as so many music critics do, or to seem like I had dismissed Night Beds' second LP—titled Ivywild—simply because it wasn't Country Sleep Part II. As a result, I kept diving back in, trying to find something to latch onto, to make this album "click" and resonate with me. Eventually, I came to the following conclusion: Ivywild is an unlistenable mess, an album so long, unwieldy, and misguided that not even my love for Country Sleep can make me try to justify it. Let's just call a spade a spade: this album sucks.

The most commonly cited anecdote about Ivywild is going to be that Winston Yellen—Night Beds' honey-voiced frontman and mastermind—decided to break away from his past work after listening to Kanye West's Yeezus in the wake of a bad break-up. The disjointed, rage-fueled, and "physical" sound of Yeezus convinced Yellen that he was "tired of being a sad sack like Elliott Smith or Ryan Adams" (an actual quote from the artist himself) and that he wanted to make a record of "sad sex jams." To Yellen's credit, Ivywild certainly doesn't sound anything like Ryan Adams—a notable departure from Country Sleep, which often sounded too much like Ryan Adams. It doesn't sound anything like Yeezus either, though, aside from maybe a few similarities to "Blood on the Leaves," or to the Justin Vernon portions of "Hold My Liquor." Instead, Ivywild bears its similarities to modern R&B: The Weeknd, Frank Ocean, Miguel, and maybe a bit of 20/20 Experience-era Justin Timberlake.

None of these comparisons are "bad" per se. While I neither like nor respect the Weeknd, I've certainly been a proponent of much of the music that Frank Ocean and Miguel have put out, and I was a pretty vocal fan of The 20/20 Experience back in 2013. On paper, in other words, this project doesn't sound that bad. A folk artist making an R&B album is eyebrow-raising, to be sure, but Yellen showed a real talent for making atmospheric nighttime tunes on Country Sleep, and his sweet and smooth tenor voice could feasibly work in virtually any style of music.

On record, though, everything that sounds intriguing about Ivywild falls down like a house of cards. Even by the most modest expectations, this album is a failure. The biggest problem is that Yellen doesn't seem to have any idea how to actually make a record in this genre. Country Sleep was a debut, but songs like "Cherry Blossoms," "Ramona," and "TENN" felt completely authentic, earning attention thanks to Yellen's emotional conviction, his talent for crafting memorable melodies, and his gift for creating hair-raising climactic moments within his music. None of those talents carry over here, and as a result, Ivywild often feels more like a parody of modern R&B and dance music than it does a respectable entry in either genre.

The issue is that, in trying to leave behind the "run-of-the-mill sad-sack bullshit" of his past, Winston Yellen has completely forgotten how to write a compelling song. Usually, his version of R&B consists of making weird sexual remarks or repeating the same line over and over and over and over again. For instance, lead single "Me, Liquor, and God" is more or less just the title line sung ad nauseam, Yellen's voice chopped up with autotune and effects and laid over a bed of buzzsaw synths. Also apparently worthy of repetition are lyrics like "You didn't have a right mind/You didn't have a good time" (in "Tide Teeth"), "Give me love in the darkness" (in "Seratonin"), "All that, all that, all that, all shit/All that, all that, all that, bullshit!" (in "[9_6] Slack-Jaw"), and my personal favorite, "E A I O U/Eve A, I fuck you" (in "Eve A"). Indeed, the best thing you can say about the lyrics on this album is that at least a super creepy sexual come-on like "If I give all my time/Can I live in your thighs?" (an actual line from "Seratonin") doesn't get the repeat-until-your-face-explodes treatment.

To be fair, Yellen has always been a fairly humorless songwriter. "Cherry Blossoms," arguably his best song, features the lyric "In the mirror, I watch myself cry," and means it. But Ivywild is so remarkably colorless, joyless, and directionless that it's difficult to make it through all 66 minutes without at least kind of feeling like you never want to hear Winston Yellen's voice again. Most of the songs sound similar—similar tempos, similar spacey vibes, similar computerized drumbeats, similar anguished moans from Yellen, similar dull and meandering song structures—and about 75% of them wander haplessly and drunkenly in search of something resembling a melody.

That's not to say Ivywild is all bad: "Me, Liquor, and God" is a competent (if repetitive) single, the production is strong and enveloping throughout, and closing track "Stand on My Throat" is actually an enjoyable slice of muted Peter Gabriel-esque balladry. But so much about this project is off-putting, from Yellen writing off some of his biggest influences (and a style of music that the fans of his debut obviously enjoy) as "sad-sack bullshit," to the way opening track "Finished" (an aimless avant-garde web of computerized effects, sweeping strings, and Yellen's voice) actively tries to alienate listeners who were expecting something along those lines again. (When I played "Finished" for my sister, I believe her words were "What the hell is this shit?")

Look, I respect Winston Yellen, at very least, for being ambitious and for being willing to take a risk this big. He doesn't owe me anything for listening to Country Sleep, for giving it an 8.0 on this very site, or for encouraging other people to check out his music. If he wants to alienate his fans and write music that—in my opinion—does not display his considerable talents, that's his prerogative. But once again, it's also not my responsibility as a fan to agree with his decision, or to pretend that I find Ivywild listenable, let alone enjoyable. To be frank, I can't remember a time where I so thoroughly hated an artist's second album after so genuinely enjoying their first. So I guess, until further notice, I'll just consider myself among the alienated.

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