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Trevor Powers doesn’t come off as older and wiser than his 23 years: just look at any picture of him, with his slight build and cherubic mop of curls, or take one listen to his nasal, keening voice. Likewise, his heartfelt 2011 debut The Year of Hibernation dealt more in truth and honesty than profundity or authority, skirting cliché while affecting people in meaningful ways. These qualities are about the only things that haven’t changed for Youth Lagoon onWondrous Bughouse. This record broadens Powers’ musical and lyrical scope into something universal in a literal and figurative sense, evoking the cosmos, heaven, and hell. But Powers sounds curious and awestruck rather than naïve, someone who explores this lush and frightening soundworld instead of explaining it.
Youth Lagoon is still very much an internally-focused project and, with its abundance of effect pedals and stereo panning tricks, Wondrous Bughouse will likely be branded as a headphones album. Don’t believe it. As with Hibernation, this is a record that’s meant to be cranked as loud as possible; for one, volume decompresses these thick songs, amplifying the crucial addition of live drums on “Raspberry Cane” and “Mute”. More importantly,Wondrous Bughouse needs room to breathe from a songwriting standpoint. With Powers’ lyrics and Allen’s production striving to create a celestial whole, Bughouse is meant to conjure infinite space.
This much is conveyed by the sonar blips that take up the three-minute opener “Through Mind and Back” before fading into the spellbinding “Mute”. Nearly every song onHibernation began quietly, so it’s jarring to hear Youth Lagoon take a more widescreen turn– echoing drums, gleaming peals of delayed guitar, all washed by ocean spray reverb. This lasts for one minute before a detuned loop of bells recasts “Mute” as a juggernaut, a steady, booming drum beat framing a strident vocal performance from Powers, a guitar solo that recalls Doug Martsch’s expressive, longing leads, a minor-key piano loop that appears ready to take the song to a completely different plateau before cruelly cutting out.
These songs are all bigger and bolder without being unnecessarily complicated. While Powers’ melodies are simple and immediately memorable like nursery rhymes, everything surrounding him is in flux. The songs on Wondrous Bughouse are continually subjected to flange and phase effects, and it’s not the gentle, headswimming “whoosh” that typified recent records such as Lonerism or mbv. The cranked oscillation gives these songs a proper sense of danger and hyper-alertness. The combination of the processing and Powers’ devious lyrics (“‘I won’t die easily’/ That’s what they say when I erupt into laughter”) gives the calliope-like melody of “Attic Doctor” a fitting, monstrous overtone. The synth progression that emerges during the anthropomorphic grotesquerie “Pelican Man” would be a perfect evocation of Elephant 6’s Beatles obsession, but the pulsing modulations turn into something closer to slasher-flick fare.
It’s often scary stuff, more reminiscent of Syd Barrett’s bad-trip fairy tales. Though Powers isn’t dealing with death in a manner that conveys gravitas or experience, Wondrous Bughouse is very much about mortality, albeit filtered through surrealism, parable, and metaphor. Rather than a simple longing for the past, Powers feels obsessed with human frailty and decay. Similarly, the songs of Bughouse aren’t subject to tangents so much as following a dream logic working where any thought, regardless of how awesome or fearsome it is, doesn’t end until it reaches a conclusion it sees fit.
Powers’ choice to write most of these fanciful flights in waltz time gives everything a properly anachronistic feel. The hopscotch melody on “Dropla” makes it sound like a playground chant and the lyrics see its narrator dealing with death in a selfish, forgivably childlike way, hanging on to faint hope (“you’ll never die, you’ll never die”) and lashing out when the prayers go unanswered (“you weren’t there when I needed”). Between the threatening taunts of “Attic Doctor”, we hear vast stretches of music for the Peanuts gang to ice skate to: “Third Dystopia” refracts a sea shanty through multiple funhouse mirrors; the submerged second half of “The Bath” places Powers somewhere between a baptism and a drowning. On “Raspberry Cane”, Powers sees himself as irredeemable (“I’m polluted by my blood/ So help me cut it out and rinse it down the drain”) and while closer “Daisyphobia” views humanity as “mortals on the run” from an all-seeing God, Wondrous Bughouse slinks towards an disturbing and unresolved conclusion, a slow fade of distant synth whinnies and stumbling, inexact beats.
Though unnerving, it is familiar, albeit in a style of indie rock that was prominent when Powers was, by his own admission, listening to Bad Boy records Allen might’ve played a part in. Think of the Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev, Grandaddy, Sparklehorse, Modest Mouse, Built To Spill, all bands who in some way combined a projected naivety with grand designs: adolescent vocals picking at metaphysical mysteries, an insatiable curiosity with the capabilities of the studio. But Youth Lagoon is also a spiritual progeny in terms of geography. All these bands emerged far from media centers– Oklahoma City, upstate New York, Modesto, central Virginia, Issaquah, Wash., and of course, Powers’ own Boise. Listeners often try to discern something special about creating art in places like these, whether the scarcity of live shows and bands makes music more important or a lack of urban stimuli allows for deeper meditation on the big picture. Though the songs themselves are wonderful, that’s the powerful source Powers taps into here: if you feel like the dark center of the universe or simply need a little space, Wondrous Bughouse obliges. –Pitchfork