[Fat Possum, 2013]
I recently wrote a lot of words that were not nice about the latest Beach Fossils album. I complained a lot but my biggest criticism was that there was next to no evolution; Clash For Truth was essentially a redux of the first album. It was a classic case of the sophomore slump. Last I checked, that particular idiom doesn’t have an antonym, but for the sake of this article and this album we’re going to need to invent one. Youth Lagoon’s latest release, their second album, is a complete package and the poster child of whatever word we decide on.
Wondrous Bughouse is essentially a really good, really confused mission statement on mortality. Youth Lagoon’s frontman (and sole member) is the 23 year old Trevor Powers who first cracked the blogosphere’s radar with 2011’s stellar The Year of Hibernation, an album that can successfully be characterized by its sonic appeal as well as its dipping melodies and semi-hidden vocals. It was fantastic, and Bughousedoesn’t really sound anything like it. That’s the bad news. The good news is that the new record crafts its own sound in a way that artists rarely do on second albums.
It feels like Animal Collective’s take on shoegaze at first, but its not that exclusively. Monster tracks like ‘Dropla’ and ‘Mute’ carve themselves into your eardrums, with catchy synth lines and urgent beats. There’s a huge emphasis on sound, but many of the tracks don’t stop there. At its worst, it’s a dance party. At its best, it’s a dance party that sticks you into the discomfort of your own mind.
Not all of the tracks play like this, though. The sense of urgency remains, but on cuts like ‘Attic Doctor’ and ‘Sleep Paralysis,’ there is a conscious redux. And that’s where Powers can potentially falter. This is an album that is all over the place on purpose, but occasionally it flirts with the fine line of just being too esoteric and scatterbrained. Wondrous Bughouse ‘s biggest advantage is its looseness, but it can sometimes be too much. It is at its core a headphones album, and the occasional lack of direction takes away from this.
This doesn’t take away from all the album accomplishes. There are musical interludes in nearly every song, as most clock in around the five or six minute mark. Powers’ has always known how to make his piano hurt the most and even when the emotional content is less sad then it is wondrous, those haunting, dulcet tones still make their mark. It’s the extended pieces that contribute to the huge step between first and second records.
Another huge factor in the improved sound is Powers’ choice to step outside of his own reverb. His vocals, whilst still echoing throughout, stand out in a way they never did in his debut. The newfound focus brings out his deceptively strong voice and forces his lyrical prowess to the forefront. Powers’ emits such lines as ‘you’re playing a song, one that’s for me / while my physical body turns in its grave,’ with a gravitas that makes you believe it.
The most important thing about this album is that it represents Trevor Powers’ understanding of what he is and what Youth Lagoon is. There are no growing pains. Each track seems placed very decidedly, a representation of a vision that’s far beyond most of his musical peers. This is an album that knows what it wants, and dances between catchy-acid riffs and broken carnival keyboard tones. He knows his strengths and he did his damnedest to utilize them.
Most bands we love take a significant amount of time to find themselves. As sound and content evolves, there’s a more concise idea of what a group wants to ultimately be. While future festival headliners Vampire Weekend and Passion Pit continued on with their proven sounds for their sophomore albums, Youth Lagoon expanded in a huge way.
Wondrous Bughouse is a beautiful piece of psychedelic indie pop that flirts with way more than that. It has some absolute stunners, and even the hiccups feel natural. Overall, it is a soaring second effort, but none of that even really matters. This at the end of the day is a 23-year-old kid who has just stepped outside of his figurative bedroom to start the day. The future is bright.