Wondrous Bughouse is the second album from Trevor Powers, a 23-year-old from Idaho who makes records under the name Youth Lagoon. This new album – the follow-up to 2011’s The Year Of Hibernation – is, according to Powers, the product of “becoming more fascinated with the human psyche and where the spiritual meets the physical world”.
Powers’ spiritually-minded approach manifests itself in music which is, unsurprisingly, unlikely to trouble the Heart FM playlist any time soon. Wondrous Bughouse is a psychedelic album in the tradition of The Beach Boys, Syd Barrett and The Flaming Lips; that is to say, it’s a record that depicts the full spectrum of the drug-taking experience: from the euphoric, giddy highs to the fraught, troubling lows – occasionally, all at the same time.
The album benefits immeasurably from the addition of Ben H Allen as producer. In recent years, Allen has helped acts as diverse as Animal Collective, Washed Out and Bombay Bicycle Club beef up their sound without sacrificing their quirks, and he’s repeated the same trick here. On Wondrous Bughouse, Powers and Allen have created a soundscape as lush as a tropical rainforest. Nearly every sound on the album comes phased and coated in layers of distortion.
It makes for a marvellous headphones record, but the downside to Wondrous Bughouse’s aural complexity is that it can be heavy going at times. The fact that Powers’ words – sung in a keening voice that recalls Jonathan Donahue of Mercury Rev – are often hard to make out exacerbates the situation. It means that even its most enthusiastic advocates would struggle to describe Wondrous Bughouse as an accessible album.
Fortunately, Powers is adept at writing simple melodies that ensure the album’s frequent mid-song detours don’t prove too confounding. At times – on jaunty waltz Attic Doctor, the lovely Raspberry Cane and Pelican Man (the latter with its closing, chanted refrain “it’s not true, it’s all in your head… You are the pelican man!”) – Powers’ songwriting recalls that of Paul McCartney: no small achievement.
The album’s best moment occurs just past the halfway point in the form of Dropla, a beautiful song that rivals The Flaming Lips’ Do You Realize? for emotional heft. The distortion that’s dominant elsewhere on the album is dialled back to reveal an insistent 4/4 beat over which Powers repeats the refrain “You’ll never die”. Then the song switches gears as he pleads, “You weren’t there when I needed” before the “You’ll never die” mantra returns, this time sounding desperate and cracked rather than euphoric. These aren’t the most poetic words in the world but, when coupled with the song’s gorgeous melody, they have the ability to reduce the listener to heaving sobs.
The density of its production and the slipperiness of its song structures ensures that this album isn’t for everyone. But for those with a high tolerance for psychedelic whimsy and the time to invest in repeated listens, Wondrous Bughouse offers ample pleasures.