Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Boy goes to college, drops out, drives around the country, writes a brilliantly sad album.That sort of sounds familiar, right? After hearing this back story before putting on Night Beds’ debut Country Sleep, I must admit, my suspicion was high. The last time I got sucked into a collective mythology of sad-sackery, it was 2007 and Bon Iver released For Emma, Forever Ago. Despite that album’s stark beauty, I later found out that the story of a boy in a cabin, mending a broken heart wasn’t really that. But something stood out upon hearing Night Beds’ second track “Ramona.” There’s a lot of dudes out there with sad tales of heartbreak and failure, but to be honest, they never sound this good. In other words, the story drew me back in.
Night Beds is the sort-of band formed by Winston Yellen, a 23-year-old Nashville resident who dropped out of Belmont College’s music school with nowhere to go. His earliest memories with music are driving around Colorado, listening to “really bad Christian music” on the radio with his Dad. “Sometimes, if we got lucky, we’d hear Diana Ross & the Supremes,” he says. He started playing guitar when he was 17, a self-taught method where he’d try to play along to albums like Coldplay’s A Rush of Blood to the Head.” He decided he wanted to be a musician and moved to Tennessee to go to college. That didn’t work out. “I wasn’t very good at it,” he admits. “I ended up skipping, not getting good grades, just not doing well in the music department.”
For awhile there after, he drove around the country, living out of his car, doing odd jobs, heavily self-medicating, and living a rather directionless life. But all the while, the pieces of Country Sleep were coming together. There’s 10 songs that clock in at a brisk 35 minutes. But within that half-hour or so, there’s an immediate intimacy, reminiscent of Heartbreaker-era Ryan Adams, Forever Ago Bon Iver, or more recently, Perfume Genius’ Put Your Back N 2 It. “Ramona” flutters through tempos, where Yellen croons about loneliness and reclaiming your life, while the hushed tones of “Even if We Try” and “22” make the case for Yellen as adept storyteller that transcends age. But it’s about midway through the album, when you get to “Cherry Blossom,” the song that’s most definitely about a boy and his road trip, that things really start to come together.
His vocals are upfront, a faint guitar strums in the background, and he’s singing about watching himself cry in the mirror. It’s beautiful as it is heartbreaking, and as he starts to reflect on budding cherry blossoms, he admits that he’s just looking for love in another person, only to find it in a whiskey bottle. A lot of singer-songwriters lack a necessary self-awareness about their own work, but when I ask Yellen about the so-called problems he’s dealing with, he’s blunt, and seems to know that the his life story, the one that’s laid out here on Country Sleep, sounds a bit cliché. “If you’re a college drop out, living in your car — you’re insecure about what your future looks like, I mean you question yourself,” he says. “A lot of it is high-brow problems, but in your own mind, you’re battling stuff. Is that a good answer?”
Country Sleep is out now on Dead Oceans.