Photo courtesy of Night Beds
Right now it’s fair to say people are a little confused about Winston Yellen. Back in 2013, the Colorado-born singer released his debut LP, Country Sleep, under the moniker Night Beds. The much-praised, country-tinged collection was recorded just outside of Nashville at the home of Johnny and June Carter Cash, and Winston’s spectral tunes instantly appealed to the tender-hearted—to music lovers who enjoyed some romantic reflection with their evening whiskey. Lyrically the singer went straight for the jugular: Songs like “Wanted You In August” and “Was I For You” are not for fans afraid of feelings.
This past August, Night Beds dropped his sophomore opus, Ivywild, and nothing was the same. Over a bed of strings, off-kilter keys, and wildly pitch-shifted vocals, opening track “Finished” announced the artist’s 180 with melodic aplomb. It’s a dense exploration of a new sound rooted in electronics instead of guitars. There may even be a lurking sax. For a guy constantly compared to Ryan Adams and Bon Iver, it’s a shot out of left field, with the Fleet Foxes-esque “Corner” acting as a single to bridge the gap. No less emotionally raw, Winston’s autobiographical heartbreak comes pouring forth in songs that have more in common with James Blake, The Weeknd, and D’Angelo, than Americana and Elliott Smith.
So there’s that to adjust to. Also Night Beds 2.0 is no longer just the 26-year-old left to his own devices, rather, it’s grown into a 50/50 partnership between Winston and his younger brother Abe who hit the road with his sibling during the Country Sleep tour. Where the singer's debut was 10 songs written over a four-month period and recorded in a room with three cats, its follow-up is a comparatively unwieldy endeavor, clocking in at double the run time, the product of about 17 contributors, and three years of studio time. Most of the music was written in-studio, with a backdrop of classic films, which Winston projected on mute. That’s another thing about Winston: he’s a creator and consumer of art in many forms and when he's not writing music he dabbles in painting, poetry, and screenwriting. Films like Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 A Space Odyssey acted as key influences, plucked from the Criterion Collection of Important Films—which is Winston’s self-declared drug of choice. John Cassavetes’ emotionally fraught sibling drama, Love Streams, even spawned a track of the same name.
“A lot of people think this record is all about me and that’s the farthest thing from the truth,” he explains. “I’m a writer: Some stuff is very personal stuff, but it’s not all about me, I’m talking about things that aren’t about me about all.” This ambiguity, and exactly how many real nights have been translated into this 16-song strong confessional, is something Winston’s determined to maintain. “Some of it's about me and some of it's stuff that’s always going to be taken to the nth degree to make it more,” he says. “I’m boring, nothing in my life is messed up or depraved as anything on the record.”
Which of his experiences are enshrined in art aside, sadness remains integral to Night Beds lyrical grist and atmospheric tone: Ivywild is colored by melancholia, something track titles like “Stand on My Throat” and “Me Liquor and God” make immediately clear. “I drank up my conscience / Five chords will not harm us,” he sings over oscillating synths on “Tide Teeth,” intimacy made more resonant by the sparsity of its delivery.
Does Winston Yellen’s complete emotional history really matter? We've become so acustomed to expecting every last question to be answered, every real life to art correlation mapped that it can be frustrating when an artist remains obtuse. But if you step back from these churlish and frankly, sometimes unreasonable demands, the appeal of these new songs remains: Our compulsion is to listen in silent, teary alliance to tales of busted relationships; naturally we drift towards a minor key kinship as darkness falls. Winston is all too familiar with the push and pull of these feelings, the allure, and indeed the human necessity to wallow—even just a little. “There’s a part of all of us that’s very sad,” he says. “That’s why we’re supposed to cry every day, to experience the full height and breadth of human emotion.”
While Winston’s newly released evolution pulls from his old love of J Dilla, Flying Lotus, and Aphex Twin, to name a few, the singer’s quick to dismiss name-checking additional influences. “You can say all my influences but ultimately I make the choices,” he states. “The sequence, every sound, everything you hear is because I want it to sound that way. Everybody wants to relegate it to be something, some knockoff of something, but really it’s fusion: We synthesized all the shit we like and looked at the icons of certain feels and forms and tried to make a bastardized version of that.”
Fans may puzzle at Winston pushing into territories so sonically estranged from Country Sleep, but his reasons for writing music remain the same: “My whole purpose in life is to make art that comforts people and there’s your tagline. Me and Abe are trying to make art that is devastating, but let’s people know that we fucking feel them.”
Aliza Abarbanel feels it. She’s on Twitter.