Wistful, ambient, and achingly gorgeous, The Beauty of Our Youth is a soundscape of purposeful orchestration, recalling the days of childhood and adolescence in a dreamlike haze of retrospective emotion.
The Beauty of Our Youth
Label: Aspén, Viersieben
Time: 8 tracks / 49:00 minutes
Spelled with a lowercase "s," the Trondheim-based band soup was initially the solo project of Erlend Viken (vocals/keys/samples), serving as a break from the number of bands he'd previously been part of. The experiment produced Viken's self-released album, 2006's Come on Pioneers, as well as the signing of a record deal. He subsequently employed a number of friends and musicians to write soup's sophomore release, Children of e.l.b., as a collaboration. The present incarnation of the band – as part of the Youth project – includes Thomas Nyborg (drums and sound engineering), Jan Tore Megård (bass), and Ørjan J. Langnes (guitars), whose collective input have solidified the project's musical direction.
The Progarchives label soup as "crossover prog" – essentially pop-influenced prog with complex song structures, unique instrumentation, and a bend toward long, melodic compositions. Self-purported as post-rock, soup employ the ambience of Pink Floyd, the tasteful electronic elements of the Postal Service, and the songwriting approach of Mew. I've read plenty of comparisons to Anathema and The Pineapple Thief as well. A mid-2013 release, The Beauty of Our Youth showcases all of these labels and more. Each track overflows with vocal and string arrangements, together complemented by art-rock guitar passages, supportive yet inventive bass lines, and unique rhythmic approach. Certainly one of soup's greatest assets is their ability to compose powerful arrangements: soaring harmonies and gang vocals – with or without lyrics – and instrumental passages are drenched in the sentiment of each song. The lyrics establish an idea, and somehow the band expands upon it without Viken needing to sing another word.
The Beauty of Our Youth opens with "The Spirit Lodge," a reflective and slow-entranced composition in gentle 6/8. Megård establishes the tentative, syncopated stabs (1, 2+, 3+, 4) on the bass as Viken introduces the melody on a bells patch. Guitar and drums join, and the string quartet that will contribute to the majority of the album makes its first appearance toward the track's halfway point – just before the sudden and explosive climax, where Langnes assumes the main theme on the guitar in a sweeping Justin Lockey-esque (Editors) fashion. Thereafter, "The Spirit Lodge" gradually fades by measures until nothing remains but piano and an ambient bed of keys.
If the album's opener was slow to gain momentum, "Our Common Ground" hits the ground running (I'll own that pun). Also in 6/8 and with similar rhythmic accents, this track is the first of three that will blend together into a three-part suite of sorts – albeit, compositionally distinct – comprising the strongest section of the album. Langnes' penchant for tremolo strumming, a technique he uses to maximum efficiency across the breadth of The Beauty of Our Youth, adds an extra level of intensity to this track as it reaches its instrumental climax. The powerful outro follows suit after that of "The Spirit Lodge," fading to melancholy piano that blends the boundary between one track and the next, introducing "This Place is a Dream" with icy eighth notes in 6/8. This short track, though the briefest on the album, nevertheless packs a powerful punch, riding the emotional swells of guitar and strings to the very final seconds of the track. Huge unison hits fall in sequence before the entrance of Langnes' acoustic guitar – which, in turn, ushers in "Transient Days," my favorite track on the album. I love the counter-rhythms of Viken's vocals on the verses, tending toward a 6/8 feel, against the acoustic guitar playing triplets in 4/4 – a repetitive structure that transitions nicely from the rhythmic pattern of the previous track, taking the piano's eighth notes and playing them as triplets. Megård's bass line is also notable, as it moves in harmonic opposition to the guitar melody, providing strong support and contrast. The wordless refrain on "Transient Days" is a vocal yet wordless explosion of the heartache resultant from "wandering on in separate ways." This track is a perfect example of soup's dynamic mastery – the ebb and flow from full band to a blend of strings and keys, to a cappella vocals, all in appropriate thematic support of the album as a whole. After 12+ minutes of virtually non-stop music and three full songs, "Transient Days" comes to a definitive ending, allowing for a breath before the album's heavy-hitter enters.
As the central track on The Beauty of Our Youth, "Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend" is also the most climactic. Not only is the string quartet replaced by an entire orchestra for this 6:00-minute piece, but its central theme – established in the opening climb by Viken on the grand piano – is also one of the strongest melodic compositions on the album. Cellos tremolo beneath the piano, giving rise to the dynamic gain as the song begins to take shape. Viken is joined briefly by a female vocalist (Synne Øverland Knudsen, who lends her voice to other tracks on the album as well), together contemplating the life and pursuits of this not-quite real persona who – at one point – held so much significance to the child's heart. It's not unlike the sending of a loved one or the exorcising of a ghost. At "Memoir's" halfway point, everything fades, leaving behind only an echoing piano to mumble the theme, and then is rejoined by violins, buoyed by dirty, echoing guitar and the tremolo support of the orchestra.
Langnes' guitar intro on "Loralyn (And the River Lady Within)" is almost harp-like, both in sound and in plucking approach, accompanied by Viken's mellotron and synth patches. This track channels the Postal Service, employs Knudsen one final time for backing vocals, and concludes with a troubled dissonance. Sparse piano returns, echoed by wailing electric guitar, to entrance "Clandestine Eyes," the second to last song on the album. The intimate, confidential storytelling element on this track reminds me strongly of a Sufjan Stevens composition, both in lyrical content as well as in Viken's vocal quality: he utilizes a low, almost spoken register, on the verses as well as a gentle falsetto on the first chorus, both of which are frequent tools of Sufjan as well. The longest track on the album at 8:00+ minutes, "Clandestine Eyes" shares the dynamic quality of the entire album: the ebb and flow of instruments and volume swells that dredge the valleys and achieve the peaks. This track is also unique in that – with the exception of flautist Magnus Børmark's addition – it features principally only the members of soup, utilizing Nyborg's heavy cymbal work and Langnes' wall of guitar effects to achieve the same emotive level the orchestra provided on "Memoirs." Approaching the song's conclusion, the guitar and bass chug in eighth notes over the drums' quarter notes while Viken adds sympathetic keys to the mix, giving the long instrumental outro a restrained but furtive mood – altogether ending on one final, minor chord.
The first minutes of Youth's closing track, "A Life Well Lived," are exclusively piano, vocals, and strings. After several lyrical passages, a momentary silence falls; distant piano, panned hard left, resumes the theme and gradually gains momentum. First Megård joins on the bass, and then the rest of the band accompany the agonizing build toward the album's final, orchestral climax. Amidst guitar feedback and collapsing rhythms, "A Life Well Lived" appropriately expires, leaving only faint piano to carry out the lingering sentiment into obscurity.
I can't say it with absolute confidence, but The Beauty of Our Youth seems like a concept album. I need to study the lyrics a little more, but all of the songs seem to cooperate in telling the story of a man laying his childhood to rest, releasing all the notions of youth and naivety he might still possess (embodied in the character of his imaginary friend) – all while lamenting the need to relinquish childhood in the first place. Putting to death his imaginary friend – sending her to repose "across the sea" – is the only way to proceed as an adult, and while that path is inevitable, this album reflects on the fact that the process of maturation is a bittersweet and arduous trek, and it involves the painful loss of innocence.
There's a lot more I could write about, but the words I heap on the pile feel degrading to an album that doesn't rely on words alone to tell its story: the orchestral and supremely emotive nature of its instrumental compositions speaks for itself. The Beauty of Our Youth is a beautiful album that bears the weight of powerful significance. Wistful, ambient, and achingly gorgeous, soup's compositions are a soundscape of purposeful orchestration, recalling the days of childhood and adolescence in a dreamlike haze of retrospective emotion.
This album doesn't just impress me. It moves me.