Downtempo electronic indie rock production often drowns singers in multitudes of reverb and various effects. It has the effect of turning the voice into yet another electronic instrument. Forget lyrical clarity; there’s sometimes barely any human quality. While there’s some benefit to discovering unique timbres through technology, the tradeoff is a dehumanization and loss of vocal purity.
When I heard “The Crystal Text”, the lead track off Young Moon’s solo debut Navigated Like the Swan, it initially sent jolts of excitement through my brain. Here were mellow, undistorted guitars, a web of melodies weaving a glorious introduction, portending an album of optimistic, immediate, youthful vocals. Instead, Trevor Montgomery’s voice enters muddy on the following vocal track “Walk in White”, sounding tired and old.
But when Montgomery’s voice isn’t inundated with layers of effects, he delivers something powerful and heartfelt, somewhere between Nick Cave and Leonard Cohen. On “March”, his voice is pure, naked, with hints of a Southern accent and warm humanity, washed in strings and nudged forward by glacially slow drums and an acoustic guitar strumming. Echoing himself on the chorus of “Cold Day Solstice”, he sounds like Nebraska-era Springsteen if the latter had recorded it in a tiny apartment on a MacBook and a Nord synthesizer.
Navigated Like the Swan is at its best when Montgomery stops the shoegazing and comes forward as himself: a singer/songwriter with a talent for lo-fi tracks, electronic synthesizers, and genuine lyrics that explore love, life, and– fittingly for his well-traveled voice– death. On “Winds Light”, he implores, “Tell me you love me, tell me I’m wrong,” and there’s a bleak nostalgia on “Emma Jane” when he tells the title character “my heart is broke just the same.”
Occasionally, Montgomery drifts back over to the heavy effects, turning Young Moon back into just another generic electronic indie band. That’s not who he is, though, and that’s not where this album’s strengths lie. Vocals change how we hear music, and when they’re raw and brimming with emotion, this album hits just the right mix of electronic wizardry and human expression.
Essential Tracks: “March”, “Winds Light”