Youth Lagoon
Photo: Tyler T. Williams / Pitch Perfect PR

Youth Lagoon Uncovers the Numinous on ‘Heaven Is a Junkyard’

Youth Lagoon reaches a new level of accomplishment with Heaven Is a Junkyard. The downbeat topics underscore a fallen world but also one that can be redeemed.

Heaven Is a Junkyard
Youth Lagoon
Fat Possum
9 June 2023

Youth Lagoon (Trevor Powers) has often been a challenging project to situate on the musical landscape. Powers embodies the idea of the outsider artist. By this, I do not mean the prototypical Brooklyn-based musician on an independent label while working a day job in publishing. Instead, I mean self-taught visual artists, especially Black artists like Royal Robertson, Thornton Dial, and Mose Tolliver, who engaged with modernism through folk idioms in highly subjective ways. Similar to these figures, Powers, who is white, has cultivated an approach that has sought to bring songcraft ideas from elsewhere – New York, Los Angeles, or London – to resituate them in a more marginal, rural American locale, in this case, Boise, Idaho, where he is from. With the important exception of Built to Spill, Boise seems so far off the mainstream musical map that a land acknowledgment wouldn’t seem entirely out of place on Powers’ new album. 

Heaven Is a Junkyard marks a return to the Youth Lagoon moniker after a seven-year hiatus. Powers announced the end of Youth Lagoon in 2016 following a tour for his third album Savage Hills Ballroom (2015). After that, he released two well-received solo recordings, Mulberry Violence (2018) and Capricorn (2020), which ventured further into the experimental directions he had started with Youth Lagoon. His debut LP under that initial name, The Year of Hibernation (2011), had arrived fully formed, exemplifying a new generational iteration of the bedroom pop pioneered by the Magnetic Fields (Stephin Merritt) and East River Pipe (F. M. Cornog). Its successors, Wondrous Bughouse (2013) and Savage Hills Ballroom, continued to expand his carefully constructed sound.

Savage Hills Ballroom, in particular, exuded a different confidence with its cleaner production. You could hear what Powers was singing and saying more clearly. His piano on tracks like the instrumental “Doll’s Estate” sounded crystalline. Gone were the thoughts and insecurities buried beneath sonic layers. Indeed, much of this turn reflected a fuller engagement with the outer world, which had started with songs like “Cannons” from The Year of Hibernation but achieved a new level with “Highway Patrol Stun Gun” and “Rotten Human” on Savage Hills Ballroom. Passing references to elements like rust, snow, 12-packs, rundown neighborhoods, political discontent, and working-class ennui situated these songs in a tactile, relatable world. 

These observations apply even more to Heaven Is a Junkyard, with Powers’ storytelling abilities becoming more vivid. His lyrics on this album often cohere around strong images and narrative situations. The opening, “Rabbit”, exemplifies these elements with its allusions to Alice in Wonderland through a character named Alice and a rabbit, though the sketched story also involves a cowboy and an episode of violence. “Face to the floor / And there ain’t no magic door,” Powers relays, “Just a bullet from the war / In a 1980 Ford.” This perceptible tension between an imagined world and the world as it is animates the entire record as captured in its title Heaven is a Junkyard. Powers appears to be asking, “How is it that the mundane can also be a source of art, even of enchantment?” 

The second song, “Idaho Alien”, continues this vein of storytelling with a father-son relationship, references to despair through drug use (“Daddy’s on junk”), and the oblique insinuation of suicide. “Angel in the garden / The razor was sharpened,” it goes, “I don’t remember how it happened / Blood filled up the clawfoot bath and / I will fear no frontier.” The standout “Prizefighter” describes a situation of siblings and physical abuse (“He’s got knuckles that no longer fit my eyes / Knuckles that a prizefighter can’t buy”).

Track four, “The Sling”, centers Heaven Is a Junkyard with its ghostly piano and lyrics that, toward the end, repeat the refrain, “Heaven is a junkyard / And I’m at home.” Though this song is more abstract in expression, Powers seems to be grappling with questions of fate and personal agency (“I could die happy / If I started again/Started again”) and what might prevent personal fulfillment (“What makes me lose my head? / Love and memory”). 

The remainder of Heaven Is a Junkyard continues these themes from the LP’s first half, with Powers returning to elements of drug use and violence (“Deep Red Sea”), abuse within families (“Trapeze Artist”), and the idea of heaven (“Mercury”). Indeed, there are a number of invocations across the record of God, Jesus, angels, blood, the devil (“Little Devil From the Country”), and miracles (“Helicopter Toy”), in addition to the title subject of heaven. This is not a religious album per se, but it does impart a Christian worldview. The narrators in many of the songs, whether reliable or unreliable, cite aspects of faith as a means of guidance or explanation. Powers has spoken openly about this approach and how it reflects his upbringing and a medical crisis in 2021 when he temporarily lost his voice.

With ten tracks and roughly 35 minutes, Heaven Is a Junkyard is beautifully executed from a musical standpoint, with Powers’ piano and synthesizer often providing a bright and cheerful counterpoint to the dark lyrics at hand. Songs like “Mercury” attain dream-like, ethereal heights. The recording and production by Rodaidh McDonald, who has worked with the xx, Adele, and Gil Scott-Heron, elevates the material well beyond any traces of lo-fi bedroom chamber pop. This is decidedly recording studio pop. Powers’ lyrical preoccupation with the numinous can correspondingly be found in the care they have taken in orchestration and production value. 

Given the location and the stories told, there is a tintype mythmaking quality to some of the tracks on Heaven Is a Junkyard in the manner of Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding. This album is also about the American West, as written by Annie Proulx. Powers has been compared to the late Daniel Johnston, and this analogy makes sense given the mutual traits of sincerity and vulnerability heard in their vocals. From a musical standpoint, I would further nominate Kurt Wagner of Lambchop as another comparison – another regional artist who has consistently experimented with his sound to reinvent how his hometown’s musical traditions are understood, in his case Nashville. Both Powers and Wagner demonstrate a strong identification with their respective geographies while resisting established conformities that could impair their artistic visions.  

Despite his medical setback, Powers has reached a new level of accomplishment with Heaven Is a Junkyard. The downbeat topics he addresses underscore not only a fallen world in a religious sense but, as such, a world that can also be redeemed. This perspective is self-applied. As he sings on “Prizefighter” in the refrain, “I got the world, so I’ll be fine / I got the sunshine to figure me out.”

RATING 8 / 10