At this point, two-plus decades and countless albums into his career, we’ve stopped figuring out what to expect from Richard Youngs. He’s done just about it all. His last record, Amaranthine, sounded howled out of some impossibly deep cave dwelling. It was murky but somehow still perfect for defining that moment in Youngs’ musical life. It didn’t lose his eccentric, music-dabbling persona even as the sounds themselves got smudged and crushed.
By comparison to its predecessor, Summer Through My Mind is downright crystalline, even catchy in its way. The album turns to dusty folk, features mostly Youngs’ voice, acoustic guitar, and harmonica, with the occasional other flourish — if the banjo parts here might fall under the category of “flourish”. It’s a curious turn, as are most of Youngs’ turns, one that aligns him with Americana traditions but also hearkens to the proggier folk experiments of Roy Harper. It’s an album that, in its fidelity and straightforward approach, implies a cleaner line to Youngs himself. If Amaranthine was the baying of a hidden, feral author, Summer Through My Mind is the author pulling up a log around the fire to reintroduce himself to the group.
Not that the record is as hopefully bright as its title suggests, but it is more clearly emotive, often bittersweetly so. Opener “Mountain of Doom” is solitary, even dour, but somehow self-assured. As Youngs tells us he’s making the titular structure, he promises it’s “just for fun” over and over. Whether we believe him or not, it is an interesting introduction for an artist who is constantly knocking down his old outcroppings to make new ones. The mountains are also, he claims, “just for show”, but the song instead does present a sort of ars poetica for Youngs, a nod to his creation and a sleight of hand. The just-for-showiness is a ruse, but it does let us know that this is probably another one-off, another tourist stop in a new musical land, and his first salvo is hushed and dark yet intimate.
Other moments here find him digging his feet into the turf a bit, leaving indelible tracks before he moves on. The brief “Misjudgment” is a tuneful shot in the arm, a shift away from the shadowy space of “Mountain of Doom”. The title track is more internal, sifting through memories to cling to a necessary feeling. It risks going too far, singing of “all the joy and love on land”, but there’s a charm there, an opening up that seems sweet, even personal. As does the more bittersweet closer “Goodbye Oslo Rose”, a classic departure tune that rings every bit of heartbreak out of each note it can. The guitars and vocals establish clear structures here, but it’s the unhinged harmonica work — all over the map enough to make Neil Young blush — that frays the edges here in effective ways.
Those moments make Summer Through My Mind a curious and oddly rewarding album, but it’s an album that also wastes far too much time in the wrong places. Bringing these traditional structures to life would have been enough of a departure for Youngs, but he can’t help but overuse his experimental side at moments here. Two songs, in particular, upset the balance of the record. The nearly 12-minute “Spin Me Endless In the Universe” has a strange, chanting tone to it, one that starts off effectively enough, but the plucked strings never shape into chords or even meaningful repetitions, and yet they never go off the map either. It’s a song stuck between the mysticism of Robbie Basho and the atonal experiments of Jandek without the spiritual connection of the former or the committed, charming strangeness of the latter.
“The Story of Jhon” goes for ten minutes, and adds up to an exhausting call and response between Youngs and singer-songwriter Simon Joyner. The track seems to approximate learning a song around that campfire, but with none of the spirit that comes along with that experience. Joyner deadpans each line and Youngs sings it back to him. Jhon’s story, involving a tyrannical father and a boat, is only mildly interesting on its own, but this back and forth saps it of any momentum. It may be a curious look at storytelling on record, but it’s an absolute drain to listen to. In this way, Summer Through My Mind ends up an album of missed opportunities. Moments show Richard Youngs fruitfully mining this new material, showing us new sides of the Dungeons & Dragons die that is his musical path. Too much of it, though, turns to cold not-quite-experiments, songs that take up space without doing much with it. When Youngs lets us in here, it works, but too often this stuff does feel, sadly, “just for show”.