Youth Lagoon trades bedroom anthemics for a misguided attempt at a bigger, more complex sound.
When Youth Lagoon’s captivating debut, The Year of Hibernation, dropped in 2011, each and every rave review seemed to mention Trevor Powers’s age. And rightfully so—twenty-one at the time, Powers already showed off a masterful sense of pop dynamics, how to write songs with builds as massive as the mountain ranges near his Idaho home, melodies as clear and crystalline as a church bell. And there was a sense of spiritual yearning in those tracks, too, the warble in Powers’s youthful voice reaching tentatively out toward some sense of communion, a hunger for belonging. The record’s standout, “July”, is as good an indie rock song ever written by anyone with a guitar and a distortion pedal.
Powers is two years older now, but Wondrous Bughouse, his sophomore record, makes it seem like he’s gotten younger instead. Though on the surface a larger record in every sense, with more confident vocals and fuller instrumentation and louder guitars and drums everywhere, Bughouse suffers from a strange hesitance from start to finish. Opener “Through Mind and Back” sets the tone, a purposeless blob of meandering drones and clicks, likely meant to wipe Hibernation’s earnestness away from the palate of Powers’s listeners and replace it with something that signifies Real Adult Dread. Rather, it gives the first sense of Bughouse’s muddled vibe, something that never quite dissipates over the course of its ten songs.
When “Mute” picks up after “Through Mind and Back” with a steady snare and confident notes plucked high on the neck of Powers’s neck, things seem like they might be in order, after all. His lyrical concerns are back to questions of life-and-death, the isolation of an inward struggle: “The devil tries to claim my mind”, he sings, “But he can’t quite get inside”. An arpeggiated keyboard riff kicks the song into the kind of soaring highs that marked the best moments on Hibernation, but then everything slowly evaporates: reverb pours in as if overtaking a levee, swamping the mix, and Powers’s oddly noncommittal riff can’t save the second half of the track from a serious malaise. “Attic Doctor” fares even worse, a bizarre psychedelia-lite trip to nowhere, something you’d find if you left a tab of acid out in the rain all night and dropped it after it dried in the sun.
The Year of Hibernation found its power in its songwriter’s use of silence, the way Powers could let the keys rest between notes in “17” and the ache in the gap between bass drum hits in early build of “July”. With Bughouse, he doesn’t seem fit to let his songs breathe, swaddling them in multi-tracked clouds of filtered vocals and superfluous acoustic guitars and keyboards that overwhelm the skeletons beneath his compositions. The guitar leads on Hibernation were so simple and forceful as to seem totally intuitive, the best feeling pop music can bring: “Oh, this hook has always been a part of me, I just hadn’t noticed it until now”. There’s not a single riff on Bughouse that stands out half as clearly as anything on its predecessor, and the record’s swarm of noises fades from memory almost as soon as it ends.
That’s not to chastise Powers for wanting to grow. He wouldn’t want to make another Hibernation, and we shouldn’t expect him to do so for the rest of his career. But Wondrous Bughouse doesn’t expand Youth Lagoon’s sound so much as pour neon-colored Kool-Aid onto it until it’s diluted to a point where it’s almost difficult to hold onto much of anything in these songs. Growing pains, maybe, but even those usually sound like something.