If Doug Powell is the new Todd Rundgren, then The Lost Chord is his A Wizard, a True Star, the album where he takes his love of pop and fuses it into something artier, darker, and weirder.
Right from the start, it’s obvious that this is a different Doug Powell than we’re used to. The opener, “Merlin Laughed”, begins with almost a minute of throaty cackling and menacing, swirling orchestral noise before dark, Black Sabbath-y power chords crash the enterprise down. Things don’t exactly lighten up from there. Despite a bridge and portions of the chorus that recall Powell’s smoother work, this is a rough and difficult ride right from the start. Of course it doesn’t help that “Merlin Laughed” segues into “Nietzsche is Dead (Verse 1)”, a strange, brief singalong that’s more circus tent than ‘70s pop. So what’s up?
Powell has been making records since the mid-‘90s, starting on a major and then jumping to the pop indie Not Lame and now to Parasol. Each of those records has introduced a level of complexity to Powell’s style. While his first certainly borrowed from Todd Rundgren’s early, straightforward style, he gradually introduced grandiose melodies, strings, piano, and (notably) more and more complex song structures. Along the way he’s recorded a rough, mostly-just-demos album (Curioser) and followed it up with 2000’s ornate More, an album that was in many ways his masterwork.
One problem with More, however, came in Powell’s lyrical approach. Despite oft-sunny music, Powell’s ruminations often came off as downright bitter. Over the course of an album, it wore, and over time it even made great songs like “Empty V” (his spot-on hard rocking slam of MTV) seem tedious.
That’s a part of why The Lost Chord feels refreshing. It’s not that Powell has choked down some Zoloft and found a new appreciation for life; rather it’s that he’s managed to wed his sentiment to appropriately difficult and complex instrumentation. The Lost Chord is dressed up in orchestral theatrics, tape loops, synthesized vocal effects, chimes, white noise, heavy percussion, and a variety of keys, creating a sonic mix that is as dense and full as the disc’s bizarre cover art. It sounds like the work of a twisted genius, the type of album constructed by a recluse with his band of mechanical toys.
The sheer complexity of the music on The Lost Chord would threaten to turn the whole enterprise into a pretentious, self-absorbed vanity project were it not for the fact that Powell didn’t forget to write songs. Good songs. Great, even—“Queen of Hurts”, “A Roar Boring Alice”, “Machina”, and “Cul-de-sac” are amongst the best he’s ever written. “Queen” is driven by a propulsive rhythm track that kicks in well before some processed guitar work that sounds closer to ‘80s arena rock than art-pop. “Machina” doesn’t rely so much on a traditional drum track as it does on a loop of a zipper closing-or it sounds like that, anyway. “Cul-de-sac” collapses halfway through into a pile of strange vocal effects, sounding for all the world like the Lollipop Guild were hired to sing backup through vocoders. It’s strange stuff for sure, but each song has a chorus bold enough to rise above the dense, foggy production, gelling together to produce the greatest album that Powell has made yet.
If each of Powell’s three successive albums (as well as the one disc he recorded as part of Swag, a sort of supergroup featuring members of Wilco, Sixpence None the Richer, Cheap Trick, and others) was evidence of his ability to successfully mimic his idols (most notably, Todd Rundgren and Andy Partridge), then The Lost Chord is proof that his vision is as expansive as his songwriting is tight. It’s true that some fans of his more traditional pop albums might initially feel alienated by The Lost Chord‘s density. But for the more invested listener, the album’s many layers will slowly reveal themselves as part of the main attraction, not as a barrier to appreciation of Powell’s fantastic songwriting.