After releasing two impressive yet very different albums, the boys of Local Natives faced a crossroads on Sunlit Youth. They could have reverted to the largely cloudless, year-round summer of Gorilla Manor or honed the somber sound of Hummingbird. Instead they chose a more difficult road, tiptoeing the line between their past works while incorporating shades of mainstream indie rock, doing so with minimal missteps.
The familiar Local Natives themes are present — nostalgia, darkness, summer, darkness in the summer — but because the presentation is different they don’t feel like retreads. Take “Dark Days”, a track that, had it been on Hummingbird, would have been an edgeless swirl of vocal harmonies and guitar. Here, plucky percussion, rich bass, and an honest-to-God guest vocalist in The Cardinal’s Nina Persson, support the track and it winds up being one of the record’s early highlights.
The stop-and-start pulse of “Coins” is another fresh twist on the Local Natives formula, with singer Taylor Rice going for broke, and a remarkable bridge that takes the band’s afrobeat percussive influence and bakes in elements of acid jazz and funk.
Because the songs are less amorphous the bass line plays a larger role, and bassist Nik Ewing rises to the occasion. In fact, Ewing, who joined the band in 2012, might just be the big winner of Sunlit Youth. On “Psycho Lover” he provides a thick rumble that is essential to the inherent drama, on “Fountain of Youth” he gives listeners something to cling to during the whirlpool. He also anchors “Sea of Years”, the album’s thoughtful closer.
Single “Past Lives” winds up feeling a bit like filler within the context of Sunlit Youth. It’s tense and urgent, and feels more chaotic than much of their previous work, but it doesn’t showcase any of the band members doing anything particularly well. The three-note melody stays with you, but the track as a whole feels workmanlike.
Elsewhere, the risks taken don’t entirely pay off. “Ellie Alice” is a pleasing, primarily acoustic jaunt, but percussion is what the band does better than their peers, and while it’s a perfectly pleasant listen it also would’ve benefitted from a stronger rhythmic presence.
“Everything All at Once” is a soaring crowd-pleaser, with cinematic strings and a heart-on-the-sleeve, slow motion chorus that harkens back to Hummingbird. It’s got as much studio polish as anything the band has released, but the fact that it still feels heartfelt is certainly a positive indicator for Local Natives.
Sunlit Youth does feel more indebted to contemporary indie bands like Young the Giant or Phoenix than their previous records, but it’s also a fascinating snapshot of the band during an inevitable transitional phase. There may not be anything that perfectly captures the Jump-into-river-baby carefree innocence of “Who Knows Who Cares” or the Every-day-is-life-or-death despondence of “Black Balloons”, but variety is key to longevity, and Local Natives prove here that they aren’t as polar as they seemed. B