Young Jesus: Shepherd Head Album Review

Young Jesus: Shepherd Head Album Review


Over the course of six ambitious records, Young Jesus have cemented their place as one of the most thoughtful acts in avant-emo. Led by founding member John Rossiter, the Los Angeles group gradually became known for its esoteric maximalism, dropping 20-minute musical epics and incorporating instruments like flutes and saxophones into their arrangements. They emphasized their brainy side on their last full-length, 2020’s sprawling Welcome to Conceptual Beach, where a hypothetical shoreline evoked the intersection of knowing and unknowing. In contrast, Young Jesus’ latest album, Shepherd Head, strips things down to basics. This time working mostly solo, Rossiter enlists just a few peers to help flesh out eight swirling yet withdrawn tracks.

After touring burnout took its toll on Young Jesus’ lineup, Shepherd Head marks the first time that Rossiter has made music alone since he founded the project. He took his time working up these songs on his laptop, using just Garageband and a Shure SM57 microphone—a stark contrast to the months of workshopping and week-long recording sessions that shaped Young Jesus’ prior endeavors. While it’s as ambitious as the records that came before it, Shepherd Head is unusually restrained. Shying away from extravagance, Rossiter’s lyrics explore themes like solitude, the death of a close friend, and the dissolution of his band. Even though he occasionally masks his writing in vague poeticism, he still sounds more vulnerable than ever before.

The majority of the cuts on Shepherd Head exude a deep sense of introversion, but a few collaborators make their impact subtly felt. The subdued lead single “Ocean” features songwriter Sarah Beth Tomberlin, whose poppier sensibilities compliment Rossiter’s experimental edge well. The duo’s languid harmonies rest atop a delicate synth bassline and warbled vocal samples on the song’s chorus, making for one of the record’s most captivating moments. Tomberlin appears again, this time using her ad-libs to support a speaking role from poet Jamie Renee Williams, on the comparatively boisterous song “Gold Line Awe,” which sounds like Young Jesus’ wonky attempt at a big-tent house banger. “Believer” features another surprising guest: Los Angeles electronic up-and-comer Arswain, whose signature is audible in the song’s golden layers of ambient synths and voices.

Shepherd Head favors a palette of synths and piano whose warmth is accented by the use of found sounds and field recordings. Closer “A Lake” is supported by earthy clicks and pops, as well as a recurring sample of a disembodied voice that calls to mind folktronica’s heyday. “Satsuma” pushes Young Jesus’ sound to uncharacteristically futuristic places, morphing from a spoken-word intro into soaring IDM. And the title track offsets oblique lyrics with carnivalesque woodwinds and orchestral cymbal crashes. “It’s all for heaven, love/And all I offer/I will move towards my fear,” Rossiter sings in the song’s bright, waltzing first verse, before the song culminates in a wonderfully bizarre, wordless climax.

The album is pulled in two directions at once. Some songs play like a more intimate take on the tried and true Young Jesus formula. At other times—like on the dancey track “Johno”—the electronic experimentation makes this sound like an entirely different project than the one that put out Home back in 2012. But Shepherd Head thrives when it leans into the elements that make it so notably different from the albums that came before it. “I’ve run away from disagreements and/Abandoned older friends,” Rossiter sings on the opening “Rose Eater,” which tells the story of the full band’s split. Born from adaptation and self-realization, Shepherd Head captures Rossiter’s output as Young Jesus at its most personal.

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Young Jesus: Shepherd Head


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