Through their first five mesmeric releases, Young Jesus cultivated its fully alive ethos by constructing towering post-rock instrumentals that rise then crash back down, along with freewheeling jazz that bubbles with spontaneity and the giddiness of a bright-eyed child. Two years since 2020’s Conceptual Beach, this alchemy of genre and style has been stripped away on their latest, Shepherd Head. But that doesn’t mean the vigorous and uplifting spirit of Young Jesus has been estranged.
As this is a Young Jesus project by name, many will dive into Shepherd Head expecting the same, ever-evolving, live-like experience they’ve endeared themselves to for years. Disappointment may abound upon initial listening; but it’ll wane with better understanding of context and motivation to their evolution.
Understanding lead songwriter John Rossiter’s heart allows a deeper appreciation of Shepherd Head‘s musical direction, a trajectory dictated by tragedy when a close friend of Rossiter passed away last year. This loss pushed him to self-reflect and consider his own relationships, especially those within the band. With a more profound comprehension of life’s fragility, Rossiter put together Shepherd Head, largely by himself – not of some selfish artistic control, but to allow the rest of the band the space it needed to not burn out. In this sense, Young Jesus’ latest is sacrificial – an honorable gesture despite the risk of alienating those who’ve found solace in the sweeping musicality they’d been known for.
With this space, Rossiter exorcises his own vices, his wandering mind, and the grey areas of life he once rendered puritanically black and white. This redefining approach results in a record that observes seeming drudgery and an unmiraculous environment with attention to detail by illuminating it with reverence. Such detail manifests in an experience interlaced with subtle sounds that go unnoticed to casual ears and an omnipresent ambiance that inspires a refreshed regard of life and insight into Rossiter’s evolving artistic vision.
This vision now entertains unabashed hues of ’90s-inspired dance, glitch, and extraterrestrial art-pop, noticeable new wrinkles in the Young Jesus sound palette that make the band nearly unrecognizable. Not every moment is flattering – see the jarring second-half shifts of both ‘Johno’ and ‘Satsuma’ as prime examples. Hell, it occasionally sounds like Rossiter is merely experimenting for the sake of doing something different. Nevertheless, these sonic explorations do still yield some of Young Jesus’ most beautiful moments ever.
Shepherd Head is ripe with moments which somehow make the listener feel both small and important, and lead single ‘Ocean’ stands out among many of these instances. Assisted by a feature from Tomberlin, ‘Ocean’ gifts an experience that is minimal and quaint while still hinting that it could be bigger, solely because Rossiter’s poetry inspires you to live and to keep beating against the ceaseless inertia of entropy and apathy, duetting with Tomberlin: “Go… Like the wind, run through the leaf…You’re a body meant to dream…”
Previous Young Jesus records exhaled such vitality by purely making music that felt alive and ever-growing. While Shepherd Head lacks the improvised spirit of earlier projects, it still breathes, moves, and expresses doubts and fleeting thoughts. This liveliness is not conveyed through their usual walls of directionless midwest emo guitar noodling, crashing drums, or lengthy post-rock passages. Rather, it materialises through modulated voice and vocals that personify as some guiding spirit or existential subconscious speaking to listeners and stitched-together found sounds, whether that be a dog bark or the ambience of a bustling crowd. The effect is a record that is hyper-aware of its surroundings – cognisant of a world full of nuance and detail.
Young Jesus’ back catalogue is full of movement and momentum, but Shepherd Head encourages listeners to be pensive, slow to act, and constantly thinking. This posture leads to no solid conclusion or answers to life’s unsolvable qualms. But Shepherd Head‘s meditative pose does offer comfort in the grey, and the questioning of faith and purpose.
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