The ambient, intimate debut from singer Conner Youngblood uses layered folk impressionism to evoke the kinds of feelings that elude easy definition.
Unlike the old saying, Conner Youngblood doesn’t write what he knows. He is a 28-year-old Yale graduate, born in Dallas and currently living in Nashville. You would not, however, learn that information—or anything that describes his personal lifestyle—from listening to his full-length debut Cheyenne. “I tried to write songs about chicks... and I think it’s just kind of boring,” he once quipped, eschewing the need to fit what might be on his mind into his work. Instead, Youngblood creates ambient folk soundscapes—songs that blossom gently with intricate musical details and enigmatic lyrics.
He sings with the intimacy of a bedroom artist whose eyes are focused solely out the window at something a bit too far away to make out. Cheyenne, as a result, is impressionistic—when you look closer and closer, it’s not as astounding as it is from a distance. But he imbues these songs with a sensory feeling—like he’s figuring out an event’s significance simply by recalling whatever tiny memories stick in his head. A track like “Los Angeles” sets only a bit of the scene in the actual city. He recalls some moments (“Wednesday morning/Miss an early flight”) and an ever-telling “she,” but it’s largely ambiance. What’s more telling is the contrast between Youngblood’s hushed half-falsetto and a melody that occasionally soars with piano and horns; a tambourine shakes forcefully throughout. There’s something or someone he misses, but he does not seem to be sure how it affects him. The track exists as its own realm for contemplation. And that area is probably not really in Southern California.
The contrast between a real location and its role on Cheyenne is even sharper on “The Birds of Finland” and “Stockholm,” songs Youngblood said he wrote before ever visiting Scandinavia. “I’m a lot of times influenced by places I’ve never been, and just, like, imagining what the place could be like, and writing my version of it,” Youngblood said in 2016. On the triumphant “The Birds of Finland,” Youngblood names a variety of birds: the wren, the hooded crow, the eider. Here, he allows his voice to boom through echoes, as if to suggest he’s more comfortable transposing his thoughts onto birds than speaking them directly.
It’s difficult not to think of Bon Iver. Youngblood’s disappearing voice resembles Justin Vernon’s, and there is a similar bent toward the fake-world-building of Bon Iver. But where Vernon sang verbosely on songs like “Michicant,” rendering a fake place real, Youngblood does the opposite, turning the Swedish capital, for instance, into a figment of his mind. In this light, it is hard to glean much from Youngblood’s lyrics. On “Stockholm,” he repeats the title through an opaque lens and adds few other tangible lines.
Even without a specific time or place—because “Stockholm” is certainly not set in Stockholm—the song resonates. Conner Youngblood’s words fade away and slowly embed themselves into your mind like an already distant memory. His lyrics typically range from bluntly simple to esoteric to borderline nonsensical. On “Lemonade” alone, he sings lines as disparate as “I’m human francium” and “Let me be your lemonade.” There may not be much behind the abstractions, or at least nothing Youngblood chooses to reveal, but they’re connected by an overarching idea that truth exists in feeling and sense, not literal meaning. In this way, Cheyenne is both pleasant and precious: an album that embodies impressionism and idealism and asks for little in return beyond an open mind and a willingness to see the forest through the trees. Even when the picture is still coming into focus.
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