Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
A cabin in the woods; long nights spent aching over sorrows that only acoustic guitar can salve; and an octave range that cascades into a fine falsetto: Listeners may be forgiven for thinking they’ve stumbled upon a Bon Iver redux when first encountering Night Beds and their full-length debut Country Sleep. But Winston Yellen, who records under the Night Beds moniker, isn’t just riding on the coattails of recent trends or Pitchfork scenes. He writes hauntingly beautiful music that subtly creeps up on you: As each of these 10 tracks ends, it’s easy to get lost in their country-fied dreamscapes and not realize that you’ve been tapping your foot or whispering the lyrics the entire time. It would be a fully-formed debut for artists of any age. So it’s all the more impressive that Yellen is only 23 years old.
“I think I’m just telling stories of people who don’t really fit in, who aren’t accepted, and kind of feel like losers,” Yellen said in a recent interview. “I feel like I relate to most of those people.” The Nashville transplant is originally from Colorado Springs and has already released three EPs that didn’t garner much attention, but they’re definitely worth hearing, especially the dream-pop inflected Every Fire; Every Joy. Country Sleep is different though. In his earlier efforts, Yellen would record up to 20 tracks and layer them on top of each other to create a huge sound. Country Sleep is pared down, often to the bare essentials. It opens gorgeously with Yellen eerily singing without accompaniment, like a man losing himself in his own mind. Although the vocal intro barely lasts more than a minute, it’s so immediately arresting that it could have gone much longer. As Yellen intones, “I know you get lost sometime, man,” he digs straight into your ribs and pulls you into nine more tracks of what is ostensibly a country album. It’s country to an extent—albeit with the twang turned way down.
To write and record some of the songs for the album, Yellen rented a house outside of Nashville that was once owned by Johnny Cash and June Carter. The country legends’ ghosts haunt this record only sporadically, but stretches of tastefully-played slide guitar leave Nashville’s mark throughout its tracks. It sways through the album’s second single, “Ramona,” a rollicking tune that introduces the full band while the lyrics follow the type of displaced woman Yellen hopes to write for and about. “Come on, Romana,” he sings over a jaunty acoustic melody. “Make it your mantra. / Fuck what they taught ya.”
Rebirth is a dominant theme here: Yellen has said that he wouldn’t have been able to write this record if he hadn’t spent five months crisscrossing the country in his hatchback beforehand. Press releases allude to how he needed to hash out some unspecified shit in that period. His own Emma? The whiskey that he mentions from time to time? Whatever it was, Yellen uses it to great effect on the album’s first single “Even If We Try.” Justin Vernon references aside, Yellen’s forlorn range on this track even recalls Rufus Wainwright as his vocals gracefully undulate through the lyrics: “All the rivers rage / Descend upon the stage / Running melodieees / I lift my voice to sing,” while the band hints at a fiddle-tinged waltz. It’s not an obvious single. With its mishmash of disparate verses, bridge, and coda, it would likely sound cobbled together in less talented hands. But Yellen rounds it out perfectly, ending with an octave-stretching coo over a simple yet penetrating drum beat. He might even be calling out to his house’s previous owner as he sings, “Come on, Johnny, please / won’t you speak to me?” He makes contact on this track.
Yellen’s ethereal voice could certainly speak to spirits on the other side. At some of its best moments, like the first bars of “Wanted You In August,” it leaves a lump in the throat and an unsettling premonition in the gut. With the range that he already has at 23, it’s exciting to consider how far he may take it in future records.