With his longstanding tenure as a singer-songwriter and scorer of films, Keegan DeWitt has always had a propensity for soothing, pleasant melody and bighearted subject matter. Via his latest project Wild Cub and their brand-new full-length Youth, DeWitt wraps the kinds of songs we're accustomed to hearing from him — and some of these tracks are indeed revamped versions of solo DeWitt songs — in a hip, danceable, electro-pop aesthetic.
DeWitt's 2009 release, Islands, was grounded — rooted in the past — with string arrangements, dry tones and acoustic instrumentation. Youth is plugged in and pulsing, its sights certainly not set on the past. Had you not heard any of DeWitt's transitional output in the time between Islands and Youth, you wouldn't be inclined to think these songs have anything to do with one another — save the passing similarity in vocals, perhaps.
But does that make Wild Cub's aesthetic pure artifice? Because DeWitt didn't start out here, is he not permitted to go here?
Where the contemporary electro-pop outfits that Wild Cub so resembles — Empire of the Sun, Junior Boys, Phoenix, Miike Snow or even fellow locals Jensen Sportag — might count among their influences, say, New Order or Depeche Mode, you could say that DeWitt & Co. are mostly influenced by those contemporary acts themselves. Youth is sparkling and tuneful and full of rich and complex rhythms, all swirling and plinking and jangling along in the background, and from the synth horns of album opener "Shapeless" to the distant, gauzy sounds of "Windows" and "Drive" — both of which you could most certainly call "chillwave," if that's a word you're comfortable using — it's a modern record in every sense. Living up to its title, the record sounds young. It sounds new. And intentionally so.
But that isn't to say Youth never reaches back to harvest its own pre-Y2K influences. "Summer Fires / Hidden Spells" quite clearly recalls Thriller, all its epic rhythmic splendor a tribute to the darkest and smartest of late 20th century American pop. And in its most grounded moments — the post-punky "Colour," for instance — Youth even brings to mind the vital, disco beat-backed, effects-laden, pop-minded New Wave of U2's The Unforgettable Fire or The Joshua Tree.
So is Wild Cub merely paying a shallow nod to the guys we grew up with, content to get by on style over substance? As much as the tremendously infectious "Thunder Clatter" and "Wild Light" might fit in amid a pop-skewing Pitchfork "Artists to Watch" playlist, I say no. Or at least, not necessarily. And most importantly, who cares? They're pop songs, yes, and they certainly sound like they were made in the 21st century. I posit that had multi-instrumentalist Jeremy Bullock simply strummed out all these progressions on an acoustic guitar, and had DeWitt's vocals gone untouched by studio effects, these songs would remain pleasant little earworms. Strip away this smoke and these mirrors — enjoyable though they may be — and you're still left with a pop record. A pretty good pop record, as a matter of fact.