In the past year or so, pop music has been overwhelmed with vivacious electronic components and unwavering cheer. Call it a necessary break from the mundane cycle of painful, mind-numbing ballads. Call it whatever you want. After a while, it gets to be too much.
Maybe that’s why I was so hesitant to praise Wild Cub’s Youth when I first listened to it. “Thunder Clatter” has been making its way around the indie airwaves, and while charming and certain to stay stuck in one’s head — seriously, all pretention aside, I adore the song — the song has a certain marketability that made me fear for the originality of the other 15 songs on the album. I expected an hour of peppy, bright and delightful indie pop, but nothing with any hint of mystery or exclusivity.
I was completely and utterly wrong.
Youth nearly perfectly balances this aforementioned saccharine pop with a dark and shadowy backdrop. It’s intricate enough to please the most pretentious of music snobs yet catchy enough to appeal to the masses. And while it certainly has that perkiness and mindlessness to it that makes you want to have a major dance session in front of the mirror in your pajamas, it grows more and more complex with each listen.
The album begins with “Shapeless,” your typical experimental blend of drumbeats, echo-y synth beats and bleeps and bloops. But it’s different. You can hear the yearning in lead singer Keegan DeWitt’s voice and the diary entry-like composition of his words. It escapes been-there-done-that territory and very nearly breaks your heart.
“Colour,” the second track, is perhaps the second-most radio-friendly track on the album after “Thunder Clatter.” It has an undeniable singalongability that makes you want to blast it through your speakers and lose your voice yelling along, but it escapes commercial dullness with an unexplainable pop-rock complexity.
Youth has its share of slight disco influence, too. “Straight No Turns” and “Wishing Well” smartly draw upon the elements that made Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories so successful … without the repetitiveness. Think of the songs more as homage to Twin Shadow, Cut Copy or maybe Toro Y Moi — more of a funky chillwave with rich vocals.
The album has its share of solid slower songs — “The Water,” “Drive,” “Streetlights” and “Windows” — but the true highlights on Youth are the more up-tempo tracks: the echoing bliss of “Hidden in the Night,” the sharp and layered staccato vocals in “Lies” and, yes, the crowd-pleasing sheer joy of “Thunder Clatter.”
But the true star lies 11 tracks in, on “Summer Fires / Hidden Spells.” It combines tribal-like drumming with an eerie bass line and mysterious synth beats, resulting in a masterpiece. Reminiscent of Arcade Fire, it is perhaps unintentionally the best song on the entire album. It has joyful spurts of sound and cowbell layered over scratchy, dark and shadowy aspects.
Much of the album is infused with this juxtaposition of darkness and lightness, of lost and found. From start to finish on Youth, DeWitt’s gravelly voice is grouped with neon bursts of enrapturing sound and hide-and-go-seek lyrics all wrapped up with a giant bow of perfect drums and bass. It is confusion yet it makes so much sense. It is heartbreak and it is love. It is brightness emerging from gloom.
This album, living up to its title, blends these paradoxical elements so sweetly. Our youth is defined by wanting to escape from the darkness, by waiting to be found and uncovered. Our youth is filled with opposing forces bouncing off each other to create pure beauty.
Who knows if this is what they were going for at all. But Wild Cub’s debut effort draws on all the good elements of pop and discards the unnecessary, resulting in one of the most cleansing and refreshing albums in a while.