It’s hard to put a finger on We Made a Mess of Things.
Though it has similar sonic treatment, the new five-track EP from Oklahoma-grown artist Desert Youth doesn’t fit squarely into either dreampop or shoegaze music genres.
Certainly, a foggy shroud of reverb fills the space of the entire record, and the moderate to slow tempos are more than familiar. Just under that surface, though, is a small batch of songs that are unusually dense in harmonies and unusually anthemic in their calm choruses. Desert Youth seems to draw as much influence from the 60’s folk rock of The Byrds as from modern day indie darlings like Beach House.
Like the atmospheric resonance of its production, the EP drifts at a faint distance, coating familiar shapes in elusive filters until reality feels like a sleepwalk.
Primal rhythmic embellishments sometimes come in, as in the second leg of “Taino”, like it wants to creep into the subconscious of the listener. Additionally, the lead vocal work is often dry and unremarkable, almost as if to say it is only a vehicle, a practical way to deliver the album’s thoughtful musings without distraction.
All of this lends to a slight otherworldly sensation that doesn’t tap so much into outer realms as into undiscovered inner ones. For an album birthed at the pivotal place between personal loss and renewal, it’s an unusual approach.
Where many would take the opportunity to explore the extreme highs and lows of such a time, Desert Youth tends to mute much of its emotion in exchange for a ponderous, philosophical take. Ultimately, this causes We Made a Mess of Things to border on blandness, but for inclined listeners, it offers a worthy experience as a meditative pop record.
Opening track “Better Man” jumps right into the thick of the album’s often low-key mood, with basic, steady drums and doubled vocals that will show up again throughout the EP. Hidden within the sustained tones of the song’s bare melody, though, is a subtle swing meter that is brought out by a constant flow of eclectic instrumentation. The undercurrent of “Better Man” is peppered with piano, banjo, synthesizer, slide guitar, and very distant backing vocals. These elements weave in and out, which slowly keeps the track moving when the song itself seems more content to sit and sprawl.
Second track “Savanna” spurs the EP into gear with a brighter energy, a more engaging song structure, and a much richer vocal presentation. Here, the full harmonies, secondary melodies, and occasional call/response moments help embellish the song vocally, and it’s at times like this that Desert Youth makes the most of its atmospheric arrangements to create something memorable, something that doesn’t get lost in the fog.
“Savanna” references a place that may or may not be a metaphor, and that is also the case with the following track, “Dan Moran”, a song about letting go. These subjects seem to represent specific, personal events or moments in the songwriter’s life, but in song, they become abstract names for universal situations.
The plodding amble of “Dan Moran” maintains the slow momentum of We Made a Mess of Things, using broad choruses and reminiscent, slurred electric guitar to carry the record to its next stop, “We Move On”.
This cut is full of thoughts about life, time, and love, but in spite of how inspired the lyrics want to be, anything that might be considered concrete or profound on this song is tucked away in the corners of its verses. The chorus simply says “Time is gone / We move on,” and the song bookends with “Life is lived by few,” to name a couple of prominently featured lines that read as flat and unenthusiastic as the vocal delivery can sometimes be. Together, they offer little wind to fill any sails that the song might otherwise have.
It’s unfortunate here because “We Move On” has a nice arrangement and structure. It has more direction and build than the prior tracks, but perhaps this is why it comes off as unfulfilled as it does. When the snare kicks the song into a more anchored third act, the arrival doesn’t feel entirely earned, especially as it is okay with recycling the same lyrics without any contextual reveal.
In a strange way, Desert Youth’s sound pairs better with material that is less ambitious, less defined, and more abstract, at least on We Made a Mess of Things.
Closing track “Taino” ends the EP on a high note, however. While its central line, “It’s not too late to start over again,” is still somewhat lacking in fresh lyrical ideas, it is supplemented with unexpected, ear-catching passages with references to the superego and possibly even evolution.
Where other tracks fall into a repetitive cycle caught in the band’s occasionally demotivating music, “Taino” combines its repetitions with more dynamic, more hypnotic arrangements. This is accomplished through both bolder instrumental momentum and layered vocal parts. Though it doesn’t quite reach a climax, it does for the first time feel like the music is headed for some place new, and given the themes of We Made a Mess of Things, this makes it a strong finale.
Altogether, the EP is a nice, atmospheric stretch that is best enjoyed for its subtle instrumental touches and relaxing pop/rock soundscapes. The musical tone of the record is specific, and it’s very consistent in presenting a signature sound for Desert Youth. It’s only when that tone is held up to the conceptual framework of the album that scrutiny starts to ruin the experience by questioning some of the artistic choices. It’s unclear how much of the album’s drab aesthetic is intentional, for instance, which is a telling realization.
Given the album’s sonic qualities, though, it’s already geared to encourage a less intent listen. With its afternoon haze and drawling performances, We Made a Mess of Things expertly captures a ponderous mood, almost as if it’s slowing time for the 20 minutes it inhabits.
For fans of atmospheric rock and leisurely pop song structures, it offers plenty in the way of good vibes and thoughtful ideas on the challenges and opportunities of living through change. The album may be hard to put a finger on, but in a way, isn’t that the essence of life itself?
This article was originally written for Cellar Door Music Group (cellardoormusicgroup.com). It is archived here with the publisher’s permission.
aka Jarvix, the Chief Executive Weirdo of Make Oklahoma Weirder. His out-of-the-box music coverage has been published by the Oklahoma Gazette, KOSU, and The Oklahoman among others. He also makes DIY music as a solo multi-instrumentalist live looper in his spare time.