Music

Album Review: Youth Lagoon – ‘Wondrous Bughouse’

In 2011, Trevor Powers AKA Youth Lagoon released The Year of Hibernation, a minimalistic collection of introspective, lo-fi piano ballads dealing with depression and mental trauma. Though I’ve given it the blurb of a DIY psychiatric text book, the album was considered a minor success, appearing on various end-of-year lists and setting in motion a snowballing of expectation about where Powers might venture next.

“Youth Lagoon? Why would you need an alias with a name like Trevor Powers?!” is the usual gag reeled off when you hear people talk about the guy’s music. The two words make a lot more sense as a band name though once you’ve heard a few chords of his sumptuous synth-soaked dream pop; a lot of Powers’ lyrical inspiration comes from childhood reminiscences, and he often displays these nostalgic visions in the form of squelchy psychedelic sounds that induce the feeling of far-off lands. This is especially the case on his sophomore LP Wondrous Bughouse, on which Youth Lagoon really finds its feet.

Where The Year of Hibernation was quiet, reflective, sheltered and very reduced sonically, Wondrous Bughouse is expansive, vast, catchy and colourful. If the first record recounted the story of a man literally going into hiding as a way of dealing with his troubles, the second details his release from such self-contained confinement. Having said that, this is not a sunshine album; Trevor is still wrestling with very personal issues but he confronts them in much more expressive, illustrative forms.

A track like ‘The Bath’ could easily have come from the cutting room floor of the Hibernation sessions, and in a re-imagined form could have slotted quite neatly onto that LP. On Bughouse though, the track is moved a step on from the gentle piano plod which forms its first half. Its second is dissected by a sweet guitar line backed by a hot electric glaze and handful of scratches, rattles and other found sounds which contribute to the overall grander production on the track.

Powers also succeeds in dodging the pitfall of over-production; with a little less TLC, tracks like ‘The Bath’ or ‘Dropla’ might have had their emotional pull drained by overpowering sound collages, but Powers reigns his busy hands in to just the right level, protecting the adorability of the songs and maintaining the ‘cute and coy’ vibe which characterised his debut.

This style poses the marmite equation for many who have listened to Youth Lagoon. The songs on Hibernation were at times overly sweet and cuddly – fine if you’re a fan of Powers’ gumdrop vocals, but, for others, the sound is a little too candy cane saccharine for the refined ear. These moments are certainly less prominent and less off-putting on Bughouse, but they are still there. The piano tune on ‘Attic Doctor’, for instance, is modified with gloopy effects which gives its upbeat, skippy melody a confusing cartoon circus/nightmare clown vibe, while the instrumental line on ‘Third Dystopia’ is so  whimsical it sounds like something off a 90s children’s television show (insert choice of nostalgic reference – I’m going for Playdays).

While I feel like Powers occasionally lets these goofy sonic references get away from him, he usually channels that sense of childlike innocence mixed with adult desperation effectively. The album’s finest moment is ‘Mute’ and if you only have time to try one track here, let it be this one. It begins with a bouncy guitar line darting over washes of sweet synth chords before dropping after a minute or so into an onslaught of droney bass intercut with sheathes of slicing guitar and Powers’ beautifully vulnerable vocals.

Overall, Wondrous Bughouse is growth for Youth Lagoon. While the composition of tracks has not changed all that much from The Year of Hibernation, there is so much more flesh on them than the bony piano ballads which made up his debut. The coy, indie style is still there but the production is bolder, braver and perhaps proggier than before, contributing to the overall creation of a much more vivid and colourful atmosphere. On its second full-length, Youth Lagoon melds more explosive psychedelic elements with its practised bare-bones indie-pop to create something every bit as colourful and lively as the album’s cover art.

Jack Dixon

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…Jack is listening to Dan Friel – ‘Total Folklore’

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