It’s common hyperbole to boast of a songwriter’s newfound “maturity” with each new album, as if it were hallmark of perfection. With SOUTHERLY’s third full length “Youth”, Portland, OR’s dark-pop auteur Krist Krueger takes on the very notion of earned perspective through age & experience. “Youth” itself is a poignant exploration of life’s varying stages of uncertainty and self-deception. Likewise, musically it explores shades of song structure with equal measures of childlike wonder and nuanced pop expertise.
The title track pits a delightfully simple nursery rhyme vocal melody over droning two-chord guitars and an elegantly simple piano line that builds to a gallop as Krueger warily sings, “a child with no remorse/ a villain on his course / it’s youth / it’s youth / confident and cool.” There’s an equal sense of hope and foreboding in both his voice and the song’s somber tone that fully accentuates the song’s impact. “All Abandoned” pits an insistent acoustic guitar refrain alongside a stately piano phrase with dark aplomb reminiscent of The National and Yo La Tengo. Elsewhere, elements of Greg Sage’s effect-laden guitar lines in Portland legends The Wipers and hints of New Zealand kiwi-pop (ranging from The Clean to The Veils) permeate SOUTHERLY’s songs with a marriage of anthemic force and understated grace. Throughout, Krueger’s mastery of infectious melody, ominous drone, sparing song structure and astute lyricism gives “Youth” its dramatic impact.
SOUTHERLY’s 2010 release, the “Champion Of The Noisy Negativists” EP (Self Group) was a swooning, eerie, beautiful, morose and uplifting soundscape that was a largely instrumental affair, using vocals as additional layers rather than the music’s guide. It took bold steps beyond the lush, orchestral pop of SOUTHERLY’s critically praised 2007 debut on Portland, OR based Greyday Records, “Storyteller and the Gossip Columnist”. That album was hailed for its full orchestra and horn arrangements bolstering Krueger’s intimate singing style, consistently earning near-perfect marks from critics. SOUTHERLY began in 2003 as a solitary DIY effort written and recorded by Krueger himself, who is also a seasoned recording engineer, label manager and professional booking agent. His 2004 debut album, “Best Dressed and Expressionless” was released shortly after the start of a three and a half year run of touring full time, couch surfing and living out of his van. Champion Of The Noisy Negativists was reissued for full national release in June 2011 on Greyday Records.
“Youth” is not a “mature” album in the cliched sense. Rather, and more importantly, it embodies exactly everything that the best music can be: a comforting companion to our multitude of hopes and fears throughout all stages of life. Krueger never professes to provide answers, but he’s asking the right questions.