It’s hard being Winston Yellen, the man behind Night Beds. A brokenhearted drifter drunk on whiskey and jaded beyond his years — that was the heavy, tired trope that the Colorado Springs native managed to make fresh on 2013’s Country Sleep, thanks to the heartrending earnestness of his lyrics and the angelic quality of his falsetto. Country Sleep was a folk record, or maybe alt country; attempts at categorization canceled themselves out somewhere around the second track, when it started to dawn on the listener that Yellen could probably make a child’s toy xylophone sing.
Ivywild draws strength, much as Country Sleep did, from Yellen’s youth (he’s still just 26), his hedonism, and his travels, shaking it all up and distilling the mixture. Common threads run through — he still uses snippets of strings, piano, and wordless oohs to great effect — but the tradition that Ivywild attempts to align itself most fully with is R&B. Auto-Tune weaves its way in and out of the album’s 16 tracks, tweaking Yellen’s voice into something outlandish, even through the moments when the flourish feels excessive.
Yellen could’ve easily taken all these disparate pieces and tried to make a carbon copy of a Weeknd album. The fingerprints of early 2010s neo-R&B are obvious on tracks like “Sway(ve)” and “Eve A”, which find Yellen singing with coy bravado about his sexual conquests, a topic he largely sidestepped on Country Sleep in favor of more bucolic songs about cherry blossoms and napping. “Leave me where you found me,” he belts on “Lay Your Hands” over a beat that contains a self-conscious level of schmaltz — enough that you can practically see Yellen winking at you from under heavy eyelids. Both “Sway(ve)” and “Eve A” feel like slight missteps by the time you reach the end of their runtimes – the latter in particular gets choppy and repetitive as it heads into its third minute – but if you were drunk at a party, you would probably be too swept up in them to notice their flaws.
The lush “Seratonin” and “Tide Teeth” are lackadaisical and unrushed while still feeling urgent. Layers of sound wash over each other, ending in a crescendo that meets the heights that Yellen’s voice can reach when he’s giving it all he has. Parts of “Seratonin”, especially the muted saxophone in the introduction, sound like they’re being played through a distant radio, all the better to invoke the parts of Yellen’s past that he wants to let go of but doesn’t quite know how. “Give me love,” he pleads. “What are you waiting for?” Yellen is both the player and the played throughout Ivywild, breaking hearts even while admitting he knows what it feels like. It’s all part of being young and sad, whether on a Tennessee highway or in a bedroom full of drugs.
Country Sleep gave the listener permission to feel their sorrow, and to explore that feeling’s possibilities. Ivywild gives that permission, too — the permission to wallow, to know that it’s OK to be unable to make sense of the turbulence of young adulthood right away. It succeeds in its commitment to being, first and foremost, a Night Beds album, primarily concerned with mining the past for its shining moments of beauty and disaster. For this reason, it never feels like anything other than Yellen staying true to himself, to what inspires him and makes him hungry.
Essential Tracks: “Seratonin”, “Lay Your Hands”, and “Sway(ve)”