Review Summary: Sometimes the art heals.
Growing up in Florida and living my entire adult life in Los Angeles, the concept of changing seasons is a foreign one for me. Every summer burns swollen and hot until, rather abruptly, it’s not. Spring is a quick cup of coffee that you don’t realize is over until the sun is still up when you leave the office. I imagine that to Josh Augustin and Sam Winemiller, the Minnesota duo that make up dream-pop outfit Vansire, this is an equally absurd state of affairs. Angel Youth
, their stunning sophomore LP, would seem to agree. It’s a paean to shifting moods, an emotional growth and decay. Augustin sings in a vocoder coat that makes every lyric sound at once lilting and freighted with meaning. “About the World” sleepwalks through a winter where the night lasts twice as long as the day, the only constant four walls and the FM signal. The narrator’s melancholy is perfectly, painfully distilled into “Brown Study,” where the emptiness of a road trip sets the scene, frozen rust belt interstates flying by with memories of an East Coast romance to keep warm. On the wistful, shimmery title track, Augustin even gives my home a shoutout as the stereotypically empty ideal the rest of the country sees it as: “Oh, is it self-hate" I wish I was in L.A. / far from all the roads we knew / unworried where we’re going through.” Angel Youth
recognizes with a smile that old adage of greener grass is rarely true. How it separates itself from its peers is in the craftsmanship with which it delivers this message.
The albums that have always tended to stick with me are those where you can tell the artist took care to craft an album that works just as well as a functioning narrative, with a beginning, middle, and end, as it does a collection of songs: Source Tags & Codes
; You Forgot It In People
; Blood Cultures’ Happy Birthday
, my 2017 album of the year. Angel Youth’s
17 (!) tracks fit snugly alongside those favorites, although its influences are quite distinct, strains of dream pop, shoegaze, backpack rap, and even snippets of jazz and ambient that are blended fluidly throughout. It’s a carefully produced and mastered – entirely by Augustin and Winemiller – holistic experience that make all the details so easy to miss, like how the analysis of self-doubt in “Halcyon Age” ends with Augustin telling the listener “you can find me ‘round / in a despondent way / in a study best called brown” before launching into “Brown Study.” That latter track, which is named after a condition where one is so lost in thought as to be unaware of one’s surroundings, is a fitting thesis for the record: a reverie brought on by miles of separation, a dream of love in New York City. Angel Youth
is preoccupied with questions of distance, emotional and physical. “I never wanna be alone,” sings guest vocalist Mellow Fellow to open “Lonely Zone,” but time renders that shortsighted: “Dreams fall far from the ocean floor / while years roll by in the driftless north / how inexorably all things fade / and still half hoping that somehow everything can turn out ok.” It’s telling that the title track revolves around that universal dream of dropping all your sh
it to travel the world in a band, a fantasy repeatedly punctured by reality: “Earth’s a set and life’s the movie screen / and every dream that you have in-between / they’ll fade with every frame you see.”
It’s impressive how an album where fully half the songs feature one guest or another – Brainfeeder’s Jeremiah Jae, Canadian singer-songwriter Floor Cry, Fog Lake, and Midwestern rappers like Guilty Simpson and Chester Watson all contribute here – nevertheless maintains such a singular identity. Tracks like the aforementioned “Lonely Zone” and the apologetic “Set Piece” successfully mix and match these different voices with remarkably deft production that caters to each individual talent while keeping the record’s cloudy vibe intact. Watson’s verse on “Star Catcher” paints with the same vivid imagery and emotional despair as Augustin’s evocative work elsewhere, and “Nice to See You Again’s” atmospheric swells nicely enlarge the canvas for Augustin and Floor Cry to play off each other. It’s a compliment to Vansire’s skills as producers that Angel Youth
and its cast interlock so smoothly rather than end up as an ambitious puzzle, missing pieces here and there.
Vansire work best, however, when it’s just the two of them and the genuine feelings – more instinctual than intellectual – their songwriting engenders. On “Halcyon Age,” Augustin explores his self-consciousness most directly, alluding to Daniel Johnston and John Cage in a naked examination of his own concerns about musical validation that are impossible to separate from his questioning of himself as a worthwhile romantic partner. “Does that mean it’s done in vain / if no one really cares / I’m back to acting strange … If there’s any chance that we’d still hang out / we could detail dreams while we stare at passing clouds.” “Halcyon Age” is a brutally honest critique anyone in the creative industries can sympathize with, but Angel Youth
is generally more interested in celebrating some questions that can never really be answered: love, nostalgia, purpose, what exactly you’re supposed to be doing or where you should be going in that weird twilight zone between independence for yourself and responsibility for another. “Synth Man” says it best: “Have you been dreaming or eyeing car wheels / a cryptic message on how your heart feels / cause sometimes the art heals.”