The absurdly youthful-looking Trevor Powers, in the guise of his stage name Youth Lagoon, already had a very well-received debut under his belt before dropping its sequel on March 5th of this year. With Wondrous Bughouse, the artist has produced a gorgeous, faintly haunting and sparkling slice of Americana, one to be ranked alongside the likes of Mercury Rev’s Deserter’s Songs and The Flaming Lips’ The Soft Bulletin as albums that are very much of their time while still feeling timeless. It’s a specifically American masterpiece as well, one that bears the scars of emotional experience and the fingerprints of a truly gifted individual. And Powers has yet to celebrate his 24th birthday.
Wondrous Bughouse starts rather inauspiciously. The two-minute intro that is “Through Mind and Back” feels like a palate cleanser for the nine extended pieces that follow, and it’s designed to wrong foot the listener. The track isn’t much preparation for the moment the album sparks into life with the six-minute epic “Mute.” The mid-tempo opening is lovely enough even before the song slows into magical territory, sliding into a second half that is built around the simplest, most emotive guitar line imaginable, one that does not outstay its welcome. It is a stunning opening to the album.
Wondrous Bughouse seems to concern itself with that intersection between youth and adulthood and all of the wonder and anxiety that comes with it. The dichotomy of these conflicting emotions drives the album sonically and lyrically, acting as a bridge between those two worlds. Powers’ voice is so submerged in the mix at times that it is difficult to know what he is getting at, but when snatches of phrases do come to the surface, they are of an affecting variety. When his voice rises to proclaim “You weren’t there when I needed” on the standout song “Dropla,” it is a culmination of the building of emotional intensity and pressure, and when it fades out into an extended coda, it feels like an earned release. Surfacing for breath is something that crops up on a few occasions on the album, notably with the underwater feel of “The Bath” on which Powers sounds more fragile than ever.
Apart from the touchstones I mentioned at the beginning of this review (and Dave Fridmann’s work is certainly a major influence on the album), you can hear the influence of Animal Collective at their least manic on the carnival vibe of “Attic Doctor.” The album constantly returns to that sound, an echo of childhood circuses, and that queasy transition into adulthood is evident on “Sleep Paralysis,” which opens appropriately sounding like a nighttime lullaby filtered through the imagination of Powers. It lends proceedings a psychedelic feel, particularly with the loop on “Pelican Man,” although that particular influence is managed with a lightness of touch that means the album never comes close to pastiche.
Instead, Powers crafts something uniquely his own. He happily lingers on a melody with the gut instinct of someone who knows when he is striking an emotional chord. Along with “Dropla” and “Mute,” “Raspberry Cane” lands a late knockout punch with a glorious mix of instantly memorable guitar and piano lines. That innate understanding of how to connect with the listener, along with the natural innocence that is manifested in Powers’ voice, is perhaps the key to understanding why the album is such a triumph.
As it is, multiple listens reveal Wondrous Bughouse to be both immediately powerful and tantalizingly elusive. This is music to get lost in, a funhouse and hall of mirrors that is half-recognizable as something made in our world and, at the same time, more urgent, strange, and vivid. It might take many returns to this album to grasp its full meaning and become familiar with all of its textures, but it is such a sumptuous and rewarding listen that returning is irresistible. Powers and his team have crafted an album for the head and the heart, an album of light and darkness. In other words, a thrillingly human record.
Youth Lagoon will be playing the Coachella festival, and tickets are still available for his upcoming Los Angeles show at El Rey Theatre on April 17, 2013.
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