Album Review: Youth Lagoon – Wondrous Bughouse

2011’s insular, hypnotic The Year Of Hibernation found Idaho musician Trevor Powers (aka Youth Lagoon) in a childlike state of withdrawal.  Recorded while closeted away in Powers’ own bedroom, songs such as Cannons and 17 were lo-fi documents of a man occupied by his own expansive imagination.  Its follow-up, Wondrous Bughouse, is just as fascinated with its author’s inner visions, but a huge progression in terms of production (courtesy of Ben H. Allen III) has resulted in the coaxing of these daydreams into much glossier projections, which are dazzling in their widescreen aesthetic.  True to its cover art, Wondrous Bughouse represents a step into a wider, more vivid world for Powers and his music.

That said, the impetus behind the project remains similar.  Here we have a strong collection of wonky earworms, set to psychedelic soundscapes in the vein of groups such as MGMT.  Ultimately, it tends to lean towards abstraction rather than immediate gratification, with a number of its songs stretching beyond the five-minute mark thanks to extended instrumental interludes and outros, but thanks to the vulnerability conveyed by Powers’ trembling (if divisive) voice, Wondrous Bughouse rarely seems too self-absorbed to be rendered inaccessible.

After two-and-a-half minutes of humid synth burbles, the album bursts into majestic life with the achingly beautiful Mute.  Coming off like Mercury Rev spliced with Arcade Fire (and a touch of ’80s film grandeur), Powers constructs a celestial tower of sound, layering the components atop one another like a precariously-tiered cake, until the whole thing disappears from view.  A driving rhythm propels swelling synths and clanking effects forwards, threatening to drown out Powers’ delicate vocals before he rises with a triumphant crescendo several minutes in.

There are equally dazzling moments of transcendence to be found in the bughouse: a syrup-thick bassline nudges the languorous plod of The Bath into action, allowing it to flower into a poignant climax of piano notes, while elsewhere, Pelican Man recalls the nonsensical strut of I Am The Walrus with a circular, Beatles-y stomp.  Raspberry Cane, meanwhile, is as delicious as its title suggests: a wide-eyed, warm march of which The Flaming Lips would be proud.

Yet amid all the sonic sparkle, there is something dark at the core of all these colourful arrangements: a suppressed sense of melancholy which is glimpsed at during the moments in which Powers tries his hardest to quell them.  “You’ll never die / You’ll never die / You’ll never die” he croaks at the heart of Dropla, the album’s glittering centrepiece.  As keyboards drip and Christmas bells rustle in the distance, Powers seems to be singing from a hospital bed, hallucinating about maids in scrubs and an “angel of state” ready to seize an ill-gotten inheritance.

It’s not quite cynicism, but there are definitely shadows encroaching upon this – supposedly utopian – territory.  Attic Doctor is a dizzy merry-go-round which sounds like queue music for a surrealist theme park ride (think Chessington’s Bubbleworks as you tune in), bequeathed a creepy undertone thanks to lyrics like “the doctor puts on a face to tell her she couldn’t have babies”.  Consequently, the overriding tone of the album is hard to pinpoint, with Powers’ musings flipping from the joyous to the unpleasant to the absurd, sometimes within the parameters of a single song.  Although this makes the record a tough one to love at first, it offers much in the way of rewards upon repeat listens.

Taken in its warped, wacky entirety, Wondrous Bughouse is a dizzying, enveloping listen, masking its dark heart with bright textures and sugary melodies.  It does run the risk of becoming cloying, with no real release from its heavily-scented grip until the closing moments of Daisyphobia, but fuelled by such a wild sense of imagination, it’s hard to resist falling under its spell.  A truly strange and striking collage of psych-pop noise.

8/10

“Living in a 3D world / Where the clock is in control…”

09/04/13

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Posted on April 9, 2013, in The Music World and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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