Youth Lagoon Wondrous Bughouse Review: A Challenging Pop Experiment

In his debut album, The Year of Hibernation, fresh-faced singer-songwriter Trevor Powers a.k.a. Youth Lagoon delivered a a litany of bedroom pop at its most intimate. But the very same songs that felt like diary-entry confessionals also threatened to burst into full-blown, fist-in-the-air anthems at every melodic turn. Instead of building on his Springsteenian urges on his follow-up, Wondrous Bughouse (out this week), the 22-year old Boisean descends even further into the twisted depths of his own consciousness.

Prior to Bughouse’s release, Powers claimed he set out to explore "the human psyche and where the spiritual meets the physical world." For better or worse, he’s succeeded. Bughouse is as hazy, expansive, and off-kilter as the mental landscapes that inspired it, brimming with tearjerker guitar crescendos and fragmented piano melodies all floating in massive waves of fuzz. Youth Lagoon’s ever-present comparisons — fellow Pacific-Northwesterners Modest Mouse and Built to Spill — wrote songs about places, at their best, big open ones, preferably explored via altered states and empty highways. And even though Powers has his mind set on a very different, less tangible kind of space, he’s captured their woozy vagabond spirit all the same.

The name Youth Lagoon, as objectively terrible as it might be, conjures up an upwelling of child-like wonder and innocence, helped visually in no small part by Powers’ baby face and cherubic curls. But Bughouse is far from cutesy. The mind’s inner workings are uncertain and unsettling territory, and despite the sweetness of his hooks, Powers isn’t looking to sugarcoat anything.

On Bughoue, only a handful of tracks seem like songs proper; for the rest, the quirks that made The Year of Hibernation so charming — Powers’ hushed vocals, cresting guitar lines, twinkling keyboards — wiggle around deep underneath roiling sonic textures. But luckily, Powers knows his strengths. Just when the psychedelic pastoralism seems like too meandering, the clouds of reverb peel away to reveal Powers at his most emotionally raw. Starry-eyed chorused burst forth like eureka moments.

Bughouse begins with a wordless mission statement, "Through the Mind and Back." Synths creak and lumber, swirling out of existence as quickly as they popped in, until the snap of live-recorded drums, a first for Youth Lagoon, breaks the ephemera and rushes into album standout "Mute." Channeling equal parts Descartes and Doug Marsch, Powers laments "the devil is trying to take my mind" as distorted bells clang and keys dive bomb around him. As the din peaks, Powers musters the closest thing he has to a shout — "I’ll never listen!" — before he erupts into the space-faring guitar riff that carries "Mute" into its harrowing final seconds. Where The Year of Hibernation felt as delicate and fragile as Powers whispered voice, Wondrous Bughouse’s best tracks don’t just stick in your head; they stick to your bones, thanks in large part to the bottom-heavy production of Ben H. Allen, who has come a long way since manning the boards on that song about how much Asher Roth loves college. "The Bath," true to its name, sprawls and rumbles like This is a Long Drive­-era Isaac Brock playing 20,000 leagues under the sea. "Dropla" stomps. "Raspberry Cane" soars. Powers makes sense of death and life between gorgeous swells and melodic gear shifts.

But while Powers often sticks to his melodic guns, he’s more prone to chasing tangents this time around — and unfortunately, instead of finding sure footing, it’s in these experiments that he makes most of his missteps. Surprisingly, a handful of songs sound downright Beatlesesque, trading sweep for funhouse plonk. There’s a point to be made in doing so — memories of youthful exuberance warped by time or whatever — but, especially with the skewed waltz of "Attic Doctor" and the spooky, swirling "Sleep Paralysis," these tracks work better in theory as part of some conceptual whole than as stand alone songs in their own right.

But it is in that sort of singular listening experience that Wondrous Bughouse really shines. Powers struck out to make a dense, heady album that pushed his own wide-eyed melodic sensibilities into darker territory. At its best, Youth Lagoon reconciles childhood innocence with the harsh realities of growing up — even when he’s holding the hand of a loved one passing in a hospital bed, he’s chanting "you will never die" with a pleading sincerity that even he knows can’t last forever. As Bughouse charts the murky waters of his own memory, Trevor Powers the youthful songwriter makes peace with Trevor Powers the youth. That’s pretty wondrous.