On 2006's Settle Down City and 2008's Old Wounds, Young Widows weren't exactly the first band to turn to when seeking out songs of emotional venting. What the Louisville trio could be relied on to provide was sheer, unadulterated power, delivering punishing noise rock in the fine tradition of the Jesus Lizard and the collected roster of the Amphetamine Reptile label, punctuated even further by the monolithic wall of amplifiers they lugged around the country with them on tour after tour. So, what happens when guitarist/vocalist Evan Patterson, bassist Nick Theineman, and drummer Jeremy McMonigle turn down their volume knobs ever so slightly and crank up the pathos on In And Out Of Youth And Lightness? In short, they create the best album of their career thus far.
From a certain perspective, In And Out Of Youth And Lightness, despite being Young Widows' third full-length, could be viewed as their first true album. On Settle Down City, the band was washing themselves of the remnants of Breather Resist, the chaotic hardcore band fronted by Steve Sindoni, whose departure led to Patterson and Thieneman taking over singing duties, and the eventual name change to Young Widows. A few of the songs on their debut originally appeared (in altered lyrical form) on the final Breather Resist 7-inch, Full Of Tongues. While Old Wounds represented the band switching up their sounds, and adding McMonigle to their roster, the trio was heavily focused on a unique recording approach, combining live performances with in-studio work with Converge's Kurt Ballou, an experience that seemed more frustrating than anything according to this interview. Recorded entirely in the upper level of a Louisville funeral home by producer Kevin Ratterman (who has previously put in work for My Morning Jacket), In And Out is an album that sounds simultaneously expansive and claustrophobic, finally giving Young Widows the wide-screen moment they have been slowly pressing toward. The band took their time on this one, and it definitely shows.
For an album title that implies a look at two sides of an issue, In And Out falls squarely on the "Out" side of the youth and lightness equation. Written mostly in the aftermath of Patterson's marriage falling apart, the nine songs collected here are the most nakedly vulnerable, and in many cases, longest, things Young Widows have put together. Lead single "Future Heart" proves to be a bit of a red herring, the closest thing to the propulsive tunes of Old Wounds, a bone thrown before diving into the first of two pseudo title-tracks ("In And Out Of Lightness") and the dirge-like "Lean On The Ghost." Patterson continues his evolution as one of heavy music's greatest current guitarists, his Duane Denison-esque bends and dissonance infused with a heavier blues influence, but it's in his vocals that the biggest improvement can be found. On past albums, it seemed like Patterson wasn't so sure of himself as a vocalist, but here, he jumps from twangy exhortations, distressed yells, a burnt-out monotone, and a Nick Cave-like drawl with insane levels of confidence compared to his past work.
It isn't entirely Patterson's show. Thieneman's bass still sounds like it's capable of smashing through a ten-foot high stack of cinder blocks, dropping earth-shaking notes on "Lean On The Ghost," heavy-lidded melodic momentum on the seething "The Muted Man" and blown-out danger on "White Golden Rings." McMonigle turns in drum and percussion parts both snakelike ("In And Out Of Lightness") and calmly insistent ("The Muted Man"). In And Out is much more than the story of Patterson's divorce. It's also the unveiling of three musicians playing together as an impenetrably tight unit, producing an album of jaw-dropping sonic power and expert production, stepping fully beyond their past influences while still offering reverent nods to post-punk, gothic Western sounds, and of course, the power of pure heaviness.
During the final minute of the album's closing track, "In And Out Of Youth," Thineman's bass rings out long, defeated notes that decay messily while Patterson intones "These wild dreams are done." It's the complete opposite of the ending to Old Wounds closer "Swamped And Agitated," where Patterson optimistic charge to listeners to "just forget them" echoed out while Thieneman's bass barked authoritatively. If there's one thing made clear by the satisfying catharsis and musical quantum leap of In And Out Of Youth And Lightness, it's that Patterson should ignore his earlier advice more often if it results in albums of this caliber.