Los Angeles-based five-piece Local Natives released its third album, “Sunlit Youth,” an ambitious new record that explores themes of love, drugs, politics and youth, earlier this month. While the album signifies the band’s somewhat rough transition from folk-infused indie rock to techno-influenced pop, it also offers honest, thought-provoking lyrics and glimpses of musical brilliance.
Lyrically, the album demonstrates both nostalgic remembrance of the past and a desire for wisdom rather than the somewhat naive hopefulness characteristic of the band’s 2010 debut “Gorilla Manor,” or the dark intimacy of its 2013 sophomore effort “Hummingbird,” fittingly mirroring the evolution of the band itself.
The five members of Local Natives have been together since the band originated in 2005, with the exception of bassist Nick Ewing, who joined in 2012. The men are now approaching their 30s, and the concepts of age and time are a clear focus of the album. Writing credits are given primarily to bandmates Kelcey Ayer, Ryan Hahn and Taylor Rice, but the work saw collaboration between all five members.
Musically, the band strays from its lo-fi indie rock origins by incorporating electric synth into most songs. “Sunlit Youth” experiments with an electronic pop sound while retaining soulful lyrical integrity, mystical harmonies and characteristically intense percussive rhythms. Though the album misses the mark in certain respects — sounding at times confused and uncoordinated with its exploration of a new sound — it is wholly representative of both the band’s push for growth and desire to hold on to its identity.
The first track, “Villainy,” sets the tone for a significant shift from the subdued, jaded themes of depression and anguish present on “Hummingbird.” The upbeat, electronic single is an anthem of hope and renewal, featuring the lyrics, “I know that I’ll make it through/Mine is a chrome palace/ Islands and old ballads/ Shining like brand new.” The song is bold and ambitious; the heavy bass and explosive synth backgrounds are a far cry from the live drums and electric guitar riffs that defined “Gorilla Manor” and the band’s most famous hit, “Wide Eyes.”
On first listen, “Villainy” may be a noticeable change for a Local Natives fan. The lyrics seem to be calling out to the listener as much as they are reflecting on the narrator’s life, “It takes a moment for your eyes to adjust/ Step out into the sun.” The lyrics acknowledge the initial shock of the new sound, but promise beauty to come.
“Dark Days,” the second — and perhaps most well-known — song off the new release blends the folksy vocals and mystical harmonies that typify the band with a strong bass line and techno-pop synth melodies. “Ellie Alice” features acoustic guitar and a detailed narrative on the verses, while switching to more electronic influences and nostalgic, reflective lyrics in the choruses. These two songs strike the right balance between the band’s roots and its new direction. In particular, “Dark Days” and “Ellie Alice” are coherent and simple yet thoughtful — a refreshing break from the overwhelming synth chaos of songs like “Past Lives,” “Jellyfish,” “Masters” and “Fountain of Youth.”
The standout track on the album, “Coins,” is different from any other on “Sunlit Youth.” “Coins” is not defined by mellow washed-out melodies or over-the-top complex techno riffs. Instead, it is characterized by funky, groovy electric guitar patterns and soulful, melodic voices. The emotion and honesty of the song are captured in Ayer’s solo vocal belted on the verse, while the lyrics, written by Hahn, encapsulate an obsession with the past: “Time stands still and then one day it’s gone/ Where did it go?/ Where did I go?/ We couldn’t wait to grow old/ But I can’t fight the feeling anymore.”
Like other songs on the album, it begins acoustically and adds in electronic features for the chorus. Unlike some tracks, however, it succeeds at achieving musical allure without trying too hard to be different. Where “Coins” succeeds and where other songs fail is in simplicity and sincerity, typifying the main issues with the album.
While the release of “Sunlit Youth” may end comparisons of Local Natives to contemporaries like Fleet Foxes and Grizzly Bear, it begins a new age of the band: one that may not be attractive to all but is progressive and exciting nonetheless. The album is not without flaws but is still definitely worth a listen.
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