Remembering My Sunlit Youth

Article visual: Sunlit Youth album cover

Review by Katherine Chavez

Have you ever grown to love a song or album so dearly that you must avoid listening to it for fear of the outpouring of emotions that could result? It’s a rare feeling, often tied to having heard a certain piece during a particularly intense moment of one’s life. Sometimes the music can be utilized healthily, played when one needs a release or to open up and let go of withheld feelings. Other times it sits downloaded on one’s phone, waiting until the moment in which it is needed again.

If this hasn’t happened to any of you, then maybe it’s just me, and I’m okay with that. But regardless, how do I handle a new release from the people whose music has so strongly impacted the past 7 years of my life?

Gorilla Manor (2009), the first album from LA band Local Natives, got me through a really rough time in my life. It was released when I was in 7th grade, just months before their first performance at Coachella, and I was almost immediately their biggest fan for reasons I cannot explain. Maybe it was my alternative twist on the classic 13-year-old-girl with a boy-band-obsession. Maybe it was an attempt to be cooler than everyone else by having a favorite band that no one had ever heard of. Whatever the reason, from November 2009 on, they were my answer to the question, “Who’s your favorite band?” and still are today.

But in my freshmen year of high school, their music took on a different role in my life: literally getting me up every morning and holding me together every night. I went through an intense period of constant self-loathing as I entered high school, hitting low points that I would prefer not to relive in this article. The emotional associations I have with songs such as “Who Knows, Who Cares” or “Cubism Dream” means that the album still brings me to tears every time I hear it.

Once my mental health had started to improve, I felt sort of stuck when it came to this music. With only one full album, one that I could hardly bare to listen to, I desperately wanted for the group to release new music that I could enjoy from a much happier place.

After four years, my wish came true...sort of. While I had been going through my own difficult period, the band had been through some rough times as well. First, their original bassist left the band, leaving them down one member. And within the year before the release of their second album, Hummingbird (2013), another band member’s mother passed away. Where I had been expecting to find an album that could assist in my gradual healing process, I found an album riddled with difficult emotions and tones, some of which I could relate to and others of which I could only listen to and learn from. Whereas Gorilla Manor acted as music on which I could project and release my emotions, Hummingbird was an emotional journey that the band guided me through in a more intimate way, and I felt once again almost overly emotional involved in the work.

Cue the present, three years since Hummingbird, anticipation building once again. A few months ago, the band suddenly changed their profile photos on all social media accounts to a deep blue, no explanation, and yet long-time fans knew it meant something. After a while of wondering came the release of a brief video accompanied by the single they would release, “Past Lives.” Then they revealed that their third album would come in September, and gave the title: Sunlit Youth.

Now, Local Natives has a tendency to slow-reveal their work rather than dropping albums out of the blue. Their first single, “Sun Hands,” was released before Gorilla Manor. Then “Breakers” came before Hummingbird, and before this album was released in its entirety, they allowed listeners to hear the album as a single audio stream off of iTunes. Therefore, the cryptic social media reveal of a new single and album release date weren’t surprising to me. However, the amount of songs the group decided to release during the months between the reveal of “Past Lives” and the actual release of the album was odd. “Past Lives” was followed by “Villainy,” then “Fountain of Youth,” and finally “Coins,” meaning that when Sunlit Youth finally became available, I had already heard a third of its tracklist.

This didn’t exactly lessen my excitement, but it was a strange choice when one thinks about cohesiveness. Personally, I like to listen to full albums more than I like to listen to individual songs, so when I sat down to listen to Sunlit Youth, the experience was strangely interrupted by familiarity, in which my mind switched between recognition and new fascination. Knowing four songs off of a new album made things...a lot less new.

As a whole, the third album doesn’t affect me like Gorilla Manor or Hummingbird did. That’s due to a combination of the personal emotions I have tied to the previous albums and Sunlit Youth’s overall quality, which is strong but feels somewhat disjointed. It does, however, have an overall more positive energy (and somewhat more current or even political, e.g. “Fountain of Youth”) compared to the previous album that was so heavy and emotionally rooted.

“Coins,” the final single released before the album and a song that I heard live before I heard it recorded, is a personal highlight because it is a step out of the group’s comfort zone. Lead singer Kelcey Ayer stretches his vocal range like never before, and the style drifts outside of the very clear alternative sound the group has always had. A strong beat builds the song in the way that harmonies typically do for the group, setting it apart from many of the others.

My other favorite is “Ellie Alice,” again unique for its acoustic beginning, but with a tone that is familiar and comforting. It evokes some of the same kinds of emotional responses I had to their previous albums, and I surprisingly enjoy that reminiscent quality. To me, this song also feels particularly personal, a quality that always catches my attention out of curiosity for the story behind it.

While the album doesn’t live up to my personal expectations, it’s still oddly satisfying as someone who’s been taken on a journey with the group. In early July, the group had a free, spontaneous, outdoor concert on the roof of their old studio in Silverlake, CA, where had they recorded Hummingbird. The building was painted blue and had “Local Natives” and “Sunlit Youth” painted across it in large, black letters. The audience, including myself, gathered in the yard area while the band played above us, and we watched as a drone filmed from above, a police helicopter passed over peacefully, and multiple squad cars drove by but never took any action. Onlookers from the apartment next door enjoyed the show, and the group played for almost a full hour despite their fears of being shut down after just a couple songs. (This was where I heard “Coins” for the first time.) Later, listening to their interview on radio station KCRW, I discovered that one of the reasons they had wanted to do the show was that the studio was going to be demolished, and the plot of land rebuilt upon. It felt like a symbolic farewell to the band’s difficult past few years, and a welcoming of the new beginning that is their third album. Personally, I feel fully prepared to stay by the band’s side and see where else they can go from here.