The Backseat Lovers: The Blueprint for 20s Indie Rock, by GraciAnn Hicks
The distinct rasp of Joshua Harmon’s voice sets the scene: “I overheard that she was nineteen / She’s got a fake ID and a nose ring / Those kind of girls tend to know things / Better than I do” in the chorus of Kilby Girl. Its infectious melody, lively guitar solo, perfect caesura (a complete stop in a song), and youthful lyrics epitomize the band’s signature style, the reason for their success in recent months. As of March 11, this song from The Backseat Lovers has almost 28 million streams on Spotify.
The Backseat Lovers are an indie rock four-piece out of Salt Lake City, Utah. The group’s Spotify bio mentions that the band formed in 2018 after lead singer Joshua Harmon sought out Juice Welch, a local legend of a drummer. An article from The Utah Statesman shares that The Backseat Lovers kickstarted their career after they won the Battle of the Bands in Provo, Utah.
By June of 2018, the band self-released their first EP, Elevator Days. The five-song EP promised a bright future for the group, whose members were mostly in their teens at the time. Elevator Days delivers a fresh indie sound that doesn’t take too many risks but shows potential with its tight drumming, playful dynamic contrasts, and snapshot-of-life lyricism. The mix of the EP is also surprisingly cohesive for a self-release.
Still a Friend is the star of Elevator Days with its minimal instrumentation (reminiscent of Shakey Graves) at the start before its tempo picks up and guitars fill in the wall of sound. Harmon’s delivery of the line “Still a friend, just a friend” is an emotional punch to the gut. His vocals on the EP captivate, except in Address Your Letters, where his fragile falsetto betrays his age.
Less than a year after the release of Elevator Days, The Backseat Lovers released their first full-length album, When We Were Friends. The album presents a polished version of the style the band established in its EP. The vocal and instrumental growth is clear from the first track. For the most part, the songs follow the formula of lowkey intros with minimal instrumentation followed by energetic second verses and choruses until the songs mellow out for a while before the end with bold guitar solos. This excellent formula creates dynamic tracks with actual highs and lows, a craft often overlooked in the modern scene, but by the end of the album, the course of each song is predictable within the first 30 seconds.
That minor criticism aside, When We Were Friends enthralls the listener while it maintains its style across distinctive songs. Harmon’s raw vocals against the cohesive instrumentation refresh the senses in an age of glossy overproduction. The inclusion of police sirens in Dugout and birds chirping in “Kilby Girl” produces an organic atmosphere for the listeners to feel a deeper connection to the music.
The band also knows the value of a well-placed guitar solo and simple, yet ear-catching, riffs from lead guitarist Jonas Swanson. At times, like on the track Watch Your Mouth, the guitar resembles Young The Giant’s self-titled album; at other times, the song possesses a sweet-tone vintage vibe, like the slower parts of Pool House.
The true charm of The Backseat Lovers is Joshua Harmon’s distinct voice. It resembles the voices of fellow on-the-rise indie rock artists Briston Maroney and Christian Leave, and country star Rascal Flatts. There’s a beautiful juxtaposition between his smooth drawls and the energetic grit of almost screams.
Aside from “Kilby Girl”, the album’s best songs are singles “Pool House” and Maple Syrup. “Pool House” presents a hazy 50s or 60s influence and the contrast of an extended guitar solo with full-sounding instrumentation. “Maple Syrup” deceives listeners with its upbeat progression. Lyrics like, “Your purple sweater’s sittin’ in my room / I tried to wear it but I knew that it would smell like you,” and the use of augmentation in the chorus reveal the darker reality of how Harmon’s ex haunts his daily life.
Aside from singles, Intuition has grown on me over time. Melancholic melodies and vocals about to break put listeners in the shoes of a jealous lover whose suspicions are confirmed. With three vocalists, I wish The Backseat Lovers would include more harmonies to mesmerize listeners more often.
The Backseat Lovers’ most recent release, 2020 single Heavy, is one of their best songs. Contrary motion from the lead guitar and piano melodies, where the notes move in different directions, distinguish “Heavy” as more intricate than previous tracks. It’s also a brilliant example of the band's use of dynamic variation to their advantage. The slow build to the eruption of the guitar solo leaves listeners in anticipation of what’s to come before the track fades out. The song’s use of the piano and more complex instrumentation reminds me that the group is still in its infancy, that its sound still needs time to mature.
As of March 11, The Backseat Lovers boast 1.5 million Spotify listeners each month, but their following on other social media platforms is lower with less than 20,000 Youtube subscribers and less than 40,000 Instagram followers. As of now, The Backseat Lovers are still independent, but at the rate their Spotify listeners grow, it’s only a matter of time until The Backseat Lovers become one the most popular indie bands of the 20s.