“SOMETHING’S LEADING ME,” sings Easton, Maryland’s Caleb Lovell, a.k.a. Young Wolf, early on his sterling sophomore album, Departures. He repeats this mantra softly as the opening song “Navigator” draws to a close. It has the effect of gently luring the listener into what lies ahead.
Even earlier than that, though, a simple phrase strummed on an electric guitar and looped continuously throughout the song achieves the same thing. The more I listened, I realized that this unobtrusive beginning functions much like that white rabbit in Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland: it sort of scampers ahead of the listener and beckons them along. Coupled with the repeated lyric towards the
end, it extends an invitation.
I’m not entirely sure how conscious this was on the artist’s part, but it feels clever. It is indicative of the increased aptitude, dare I say maturity, that marks Young Wolf’s new record. And young he is: a spry twenty-three years old, and already the sole creative force behind two striking albums, the first of which was his self-titled debut, released in October 2020 just as the entire planet was submerged into a disease-laden nightmare.
Both records, it should be noted, were almost entirely self-produced, written,
and performed by Lovell himself in one room, Nebraska-style - although
Young Wolf’s albums bear little resemblance to that pioneering record from
one of his major influences (Bruce Springsteen), with its bleak minimalism
and dark themes. Nonetheless, the methods don’t seem so different, even
with decades in between. There is no producer or engineer here, and no
record label to speak of. On that basis alone I think both albums are tremen-
Having said that, the entirely indie approach to being a modern singer and
songwriter does have its limitations, and after hearing Departures and
comparing it to its sonically similar younger brother, it does beg the
question of how near Young Wolf might be to the outer limit of this way of
making records. It seems like a safe argument to make that for the artist to journey beyond Departures and all that it legitimately achieves, outside parties - resources beyond what he can rustle up alone - may be required.
But that is a matter for another day. My focus hereafter is on this second album. Departures, for this listener, is a bold, strong, and at times a dramatic leap forward for Young Wolf. It is a wonderful record, roundly cohesive, thoughtful, and representative of where this young man is artistically and in life in general.
Generally speaking, Young Wolf’s music is not up-tempo, or even lively, although it is fairly bursting with feeling, and vitality, and truth. But if you are looking for foot-tapping, bopping-along-at-a-steady-clip music, this would not be your first choice. Again, if you are looking to rock out, jump around, or pump your fists, you might want to look elsewhere.
But if you, like me, respond to atmospheric, ambient, even lush music that attempts to juggle those spheres writers always make reference to (but probably don’t know, either, what “the spheres” really are), then in this particular artist you may have found your destination. Young Wolf is a genuine seeker, a dreamer. His music plays out across carefully cultivated sonic landscapes among light, energy, hope, faith, loss, and not a small quotient of what one might call the spirit, or God, depending on your perspective.
Turning to that music now, after being enticed by “Navigator,” which takes its own time but grows on the listener, we get caught up in the magnificent (and sole) single from the album, “Kids Dreaming.” In spite of any previous observations, this song is an upbeat gem (the exception) that shimmers with hope, while also taking an evocative look at memories of being young and impressionable. “I knew you once in another life,” Lovell sings, “back before the war, when the air we breathed was made of light.” But even as a child, this artist had one eye looking upward and beyond (trust me). Here he writes poetically about “the roar of the ancient sea/the humming of the mystery” before lobbing a question at us that we all wonder about at one time or another: “Why can’t we go back to when we were two kids dreaming?”
Just about all of Young Wolf’s lyrical themes are present in this luminous track, but it is the music that really shines. The artist has commented that this is one of the songs on Departures that was the longest in coming together, but the final product pays it all off, and it’s the listener who benefits. It has a nearly seamless construction, building on a simple but gorgeous guitar riff, and anchored by the singer’s lovely harmonizing with himself in the chorus (improved backing vocals abound on this record). It all leads to one of the most hopeful (and honest) moments on the album, when Lovell assures us “we’re gonna find out who we are,” then rips into a note-perfect guitar solo - more on those in a moment - that, for me, seizes the emotions evoked in the music, like a baton clutched by the last runner in a relay, and carries everything across the finish line. If you aren’t clear on what Young Wolf is capable of, you should spin up “Kids Dreaming,” an indie-rock triumph that I would put up against anything currently out there.
Speaking of guitar solos, and Young Wolf’s specifically, I must admit these are a source of slight befuddlement for me, if not quite frustration. The reason is this: for the second straight record, I wanted to hear more than one or two. But Lovell the guitarist makes use of solos only sparingly. For him it is a craft matter: he won’t play one unless it’s called for by the song itself. But let me tell you: this man can play lead, and when he does so (see “Kids”), he can take things to a whole new plateau.
Having grown up in the 1970s and 80s, I find myself jonesing for a little more flash at times when listening to Young Wolf. But guitar solos in general, as anyone north of 35 can tell you, are not what they once were. They don’t mean the same thing to the younger generation of musicians—or fans. Which, I have ultimately decided, is probably to the good. Because when you actually do get a solo in a Young Wolf song, he makes it count. It feels like being rewarded for one’s patience.
After “Kids Dreaming” comes the more contemplative “Supermoon,” a staple of Young Wolf’s live show for a number of years and an obviously personal song for the musician. This is a ponderous, slower effort than “Kids” that takes full advantage of one of the record’s strongest lyrical images in the form of a rare celestial event. Drawing on his spiritual side, always present in Young Wolf’s music and nurtured by his Catholic upbringing, the moon becomes a colossal Eucharistic offering as “this whole town becomes the altarpiece.” You don’t see many modern artists paying homage to this sacramental concept. But Lovell subtly manages to make it catholic, small c, by focusing on the beauty and the mystery of the thing. And if his affecting lyric and vocal delivery don’t make all this clear, a beautiful musical bridge two-thirds of the way through “Supermoon” will. It is one of the finest moments on Departures.
The next three of this record’s eight songs form their own middle chapter, and while special mention must be reserved for the center panel of this triptych, do not overlook the other two. They feel to me like a couplet. “Old Flames” and “What Remains,” acoustic-based songs that both sound nostalgic, wistful, and maybe a little bit melancholy, find Young Wolf in a retrospective temper. “This town feels like a time machine,” he intones, describing a restless drive in a car while mulling over the past. “I’m doing what I can to keep this heart from falling apart.” We’ve all been there.
“What Remains” seems born of a more specific, personal memory for Lovell, as he reflects on the demolition of a school he attended while growing up. “Can I change when I feel so strange?” he wonders, jarred by the existential and spiritual inclinations that rattle through one when they realize the impermanence of most things. This song, however, does expose a rare misstep, one that can happen when Young Wolf seems to pile too many layers onto his construct. The bridge portion feels overburdened sonically, and reminded me a bit of the chorus to an earlier song, “Cloudwatcher,” that to me suffers from the same ailment.
Am I nitpicking now? Perhaps. Young Wolf isn’t perfect - news flash - and this second album isn’t either. You can find flaws if you hunt for them. But this man is twenty-three, and he said it himself: he’s still finding out who he is. And for the record, no pun intended, if he slips momentarily in one fleeting part of “What Remains,” he fully regains his footing on the final two songs.
But first, I must discuss that center panel - a song that just might be the lynch pin of the entire album. I am talking about the fifth track, the outstanding “Living Water,” which really blew me away on the first listen, and is in contention with “Kids” for my favorite song on Departures. Here’s another tune you can stand up against anything going today and feel very confident. I don’t know if I need to even go into the music - it has to be heard. It has a haunting vibe, aided by a couple of different guitar lines that demonstrate Lovell’s prowess at exploring new corners sonically. It has a mysterious and enchanting vibe that stays with you.
What is even more intriguing to me here are the lyrics. “Living Water” works as a straight-up love song, but based on the title alone, there’s more to it. The use of the term “baby” and the line that goes “Rain down your love on me” give the impression of a rather natural appetite for human, in this case female, charms. But the notion of “living water” setting him “free” raises things onto a different plane, and further demonstrates what I think is Young Wolf’s unique sensibility. I believe I hear in this song an unsurprising but rarely acknowledged (by a man of his age) tension between spirituality and carnality. He wants what everybody wants, but he also perceives that there are deeper possibilities even in love between flesh-and-blood humans. This blend, for me, suggests honesty, maturity, and also credibility. This song could not possibly be faked. Add all of that to the gorgeous music, and it’s an absolute winner.
At any rate, though I have long outrun my initial word count, we move now to the conclusion of the album. The final two tracks are both pensive but impressive for all that. I wouldn’t say that they represent a happy ending, but nor are they negative or lacking hope. They leave a listener with plenty to think about. Granted, that may not be for everyone, but for those who are hungry for art that is both entertaining and thought-provoking, you can do much worse than Young Wolf.
“Leave a Trace,” the penultimate statement on Departures, is clearly about loss, about continuing on in the wake of someone or something of particular importance, or influence, or both. “We spend our whole lives believing there was something on the other side,” the Wolf ponders, but when a key source of this belief goes missing, we are left to continue searching on our own. But this engaging and somehow driving number, with percussion that suggests the persistence the song strongly implies is necessary, also floats the engaging question: What if, in all that time we spend searching for something beyond ourselves, that same thing is also searching for us?
Then we come to the terminal at the end of this album, ironically called “Destination,” because this entire production suggests a shoving off but lacks any true arrival. “Destination” concerns the possibility of finding answers, but not the actual discovery. In addition, the song is candid about what this continuing process can sometimes feel like. “I'm standing at the station/With an anchor in my heart,” Lovell admits without much subtlety. He later issues the Good Friday-esque query, “Why did you leave me out here on my own?” Who’s he asking? Is it the figure who ventured forth ahead of him in “Leave a Trace”? Is it God? You decide.
“Destination” wobbles on the knife-edge of darkness but resists the plunge. That’s important. “Maybe we will find out at last/When we reach our destination” is this album’s final thought - an honest and open one. It leaves the door ajar. A hopeful piano encourages this notion, but it is an optimistic closing vocal motif that lights the way through this final passage. One can see and hear him on a stage in the near future, offering this up to his audience and listening to them echo it back. Lovell only occasionally uses his voice instrumentally, not just as a vehicle for language - but when he does so here, it makes all the difference. The heart emerges from Departures ready for the next leg.
The next leg, indeed. What will it be for Young Wolf? As “Destination” implies, we’ll only find out when we get there. But whatever it is, everything that has led up to this stage of Young Wolf’s journey suggests it will be worth the ride. With Departures, this intuitive, expressive artist has issued a compelling call to all passengers: This train is leaving the station. It’s time to get on board.
Stream Departures here: