A Portrait of the Young Man As An Artist
“THE WAY OUT IS THE WAY IN,” wrote the late Neil Peart, one of the most influential musicians and lyricists in the history of modern music, at an advanced stage of his long career with the Canadian rock band Rush. Peart had already encountered tremendous hardship in his life, well documented, and would face more in the not-too-distant future (he succumbed to brain cancer in January). But the famously intense drummer was also well known for plumbing interior landscapes in his writing, reflecting deeply on what lessons might be gleaned from his broad experience.
This formula seems to appeal to the emerging musician/songwriter Caleb Lovell, a 20-year-old wunderkind hailing from Maryland’s eastern shore, whose self-titled debut record under the moniker Young Wolf dropped across streaming platforms on October 3.
And while a listener might be hard-pressed to identify Rush’s stamp directly in Lovell’s atmospheric, indie-alt-rock, I can report with an insider’s knowledge (Lovell is my nephew: full disclosure) that he was raised to appreciate the legendary trio.
Moreover, I believe that that band’s earned reputation for discipline, experimentation, and respectfulness towards others made an even deeper impression on this blossoming young talent.
If there’s a case to be made against your humble scribe taking up the quill on behalf of his own nephew, well, let’s see Exhibit A. In my defense, I would cite an earlier review I wrote of the mandolin player Joe K. Walsh’s third solo album, called Borderland, in 2016. Walsh is my cousin, and to ward off screams of “favoritism” from readers, I proposed three reasons for my critiquing his record: 1) I have a good ear; 2) I enjoy writing about music; and 3) I believe bragging about one’s family ought to be a fundamental human right. Thus, to continue.
Young Wolf’s seven-song album - conceived, composed, and performed entirely by the artist during the middle of the plague summer in his solitary bedroom (a la Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska) - is a bold, lush, and thoughtful debut, the product of a young man whose striking capacity for self-reflection could educate many older adults (even presidents, perhaps). It has moments of perceptiveness and clarity of vision that seem well beyond the musician’s tender years. It won’t, or it shouldn’t, embarrass him when he’s older.
I’m not suggesting that Young Wolf belted it out on his first trip to the plate. But he hit for extra bases - and that’s quite something. He has clearly studied the experts, trained and drilled hard on the fundamentals, and can be expected to improve. We’ll address some of Lovell’s rookie errors, but they do not obscure the glow of his potential. And the proof is right there for you in both the music and the lyrics.
A cursory glance at the song titles alone suggests that Lovell is not exactly breaking into uncharted territory: “Across the Night.” “In the Distance.” “It Comes in Waves.” “Two Places at Once.” Nor does he need to. It remains to be seen whether this troubadour will venture out to where no one has gone before. For now, it’s not about finding new ground; it’s more about finding common ground.
The lyrics to these songs are concerned with broad themes that anyone who has lived a while can grasp: beauty, hope, nature, purpose, struggle - and an appreciation for all. But at barely 20 years old, Lovell seems to have experienced a disproportionate sampling of each. In “Embers,” an absolutely gorgeous, hushed song that I would stand up with anything I’ve heard all year, he writes simply, “We tell ourselves that we are good/But it’s so hard to believe it.” Remarkably, Lovell wrote this song when he was 16 years old.
One could argue that the songwriter’s lyrics are weighted with too much awareness or knowledge of difficulty, for someone only recently out of his teens. This may turn off some listeners. But a counterpoint to this would be that it takes courage to acknowledge the truth, and perhaps even more than that to convert one’s wrestling with it into a meaningful enterprise. “I can find you,” Lovell promises in “Two Places at Once.” He then repeats it with hope, as if both instructing and steadying himself.
Musically, it sounds as though each song has been painstakingly constructed, with the young songsmith performing on all instruments - primarily acoustic and electric guitar, bass, and keyboards, with the occasional harmonica. Young Wolf’s style is clearly comparable to that of current indie-rock acts that favor an expansive sonic palate - bands like The War on Drugs, Future Islands, Cloud Nothing. But closer listening to Lovell’s guitar playing, which is both expressive and restrained, reveals the influence of an older generation of six-string gurus, such as Mark Knopfler, David Gilmour, Alex Lifeson, and the lesser-known virtuoso Eric Johnson.
“Across the Night,” the album’s energetic lead-off track, begins with a toe-tapping groove driven by a propulsive bassline. Lovell greets us from “out here on the darkened fields” and from the upper register of his somewhat limited vocal range. But his tone is flushed with the brightness shared by dreamers everywhere: “chasing spirits in disguise/with the fire in our eyes.” There’s a compelling kineticism to this song, which gradually folds in reverb-y guitar flourishes, but refrains from leaning too heavily on them. It would make a terrific set opener, in some imagined future where Lovell can take this material on the road.
It’s common for younger musicians, who have perhaps been toiling away at their chops for a long time, to show off. But this guitarist obviously learned from his rock progenitors that there’s a time and place for razzle-dazzle, and one must choose their moments. I found myself almost yearning for more lead guitar, perhaps a ripping solo or two - which is something admirers of this artist may hope for in future work. On the other hand, holding back tends to increase the payoff from select moments, as in just after the initial verse in “It Comes in Waves,” when Lovell injects a brief but invigorating guitar line to expedite us into the next verse.
In the middle section of the record, from the moody “Cloud Watcher” through “Two Places at Once” and “In the Distance,” there’s a stronger sense of straining for something that seems to lie a bit beyond the artist’s reach. The result is a middle passage of sorts that is a bit of a mixed bag, but it also feels like an essential element of Lovell’s modus operandi. He’s a seeker and a dreamer. Some of what he is looking for, it is obvious to anyone who listens closely, he’s simply not going to find.
“Cloud Watcher,” a quintessential Young Wolf creation if one exists, is the best example of what I mean. Interestingly, this song divided some of the early listeners of this album that I reached out to. It’s the first song to blend piano with bass and guitars, and all of these instruments have lovely moments here. Lovell also expresses himself beautifully in the vocal, bravely employing a falsetto at times, as if reaching upward for the “pieces of Heaven in this life.”
But a somewhat overstuffed chorus, while urging us to “lose ourselves in dreams,” itself loses its way to a degree in an electric guitar flourish that sounds something like a waterfall. It’s pretty, but waterfalls tend to drown out all other sounds.
Also, vocally, there are times when Lovell seems intent on infusing a lyric with more nuance than may be found therein. I attribute this generally to his youth, and as such, I’m not too worried about it. For better or worse, additional time and experience tend to become the best editors.
But I want to emphasize, the shakier moments on this album are vastly outweighed by the impressive ones. The whole project coheres with a unifying vision that, no matter how young, Young Wolf has clearly been working to achieve for some time. And the painstaking way he incorporated the various pieces, the musical bones, the poetic phrases, and the contemplation that led him to all of it, is commendable.
Which leads me to the final two tracks, “Embers” and “Season’s End.” Both are among the record’s strongest, and form a memorable conclusion. The former, mentioned previously, is ironically one of the album’s darkest moments - the apparent product of a period of struggle with what might be broadly described as mental health. Yet Lovell pulls off something remarkable by managing to infuse the song with both beauty and hope, largely due to his lovely vocal and nuanced guitar. The fact that he originally wrote this song in his mid-teens is downright stunning.
“Season’s End,” a more nebulous affair lyrically, is a piano-driven coda that has the distinct feel of a farewell. Infused with some of the album’s most poetic images - the line “there’s a fire in the heart of the leaves” all but crackles with mystery - this song closes with a piano and vocal mantra that brings to my mind the final bars of “Valentine’s Day,” an album closer from another artist known to turn inward for some of his best work. That would be Springsteen himself, from his 1987 album Tunnel of Love - high praise, to this writer’s way of thinking.
When I was about to turn 20 myself, I had an "a-ha moment" one day in a university study hall where I discovered, to my surprise, that what I really wanted to do with myself was write. From that point on, I nursed a secret dream to write a novel. Eventually, I realized that dream.
In 2013. That is to say, twenty-three years later. And I promise, it was not for lack of trying. It just required a very long time and a lot of uncharted hours to come up with an artistic statement that was completely mine, and to learn the skills required to build it up from nothing into something.
I don’t exactly know when Young Wolf’s dream was born. Only he does. But even my rudimentary math skills tell me it didn’t take him 23 years to get there. And I know he realized his vision entirely on his own - with no studio, no producer, no insider knowledge, no guy who knows a guy who knows a guy.
Young Wolf’s debut record arrives with my very enthusiastic recommendation, uncle or not. It is undeniably a powerful, heartfelt statement from a compelling new voice. Let that voice now be heard.