Four songs into Wondrous Bughouse, the second album from recently-turned 24-year old Trevor Powers, there’s a track called The Bath. It’s rather like the idyllic, imagined bath: warm, comforting, cosy, relaxing. Imagine listening to someone singing under that water, and somewhere among all that, you get a glimpse of where Powers’s Youth Lagoon project is at.
If that introduction is a bit twee, the reality is far more absorbing. Youth Lagoon’s 2011 debut The Year of Hibernation struck underground gold in the US and made some critically acclaimed inroads in the UK, but this time around, we’re much more prepared for Powers’s music. That we are owes much to the efforts of the likes of Washed Out and M83 in pioneering that now familiar lo-fi sound late in the last decade, and the recent success of Tame Impala’s Lonerism indicates a tipping point may now have been reached.
Into this world, then, cautiously emerges Wondrous Bughouse: three minute opener Through Mind and Back unfolds hazily, electronic blips and beeps chirping over resonant chords sunk deep in reverb. It’s left to Mute, which turns on a warped arpeggio piano loop and introduces the album’s solid live drum sound, to bring this record to life. Powers’s youthful vocals, like much of the instruments used on the album, crackle through light distortion, with synthesizers swelling underneath the dusty echo of his words.
Across all 10 tracks here, Powers’s love of effects is writ large: only the drum kit escapes a blanketing of reverb, tremolo, echo and distortion. Yet far from blurring the songs and melodies together, the atmosphere remains, for the most part of Bughouse, enchanting and rewarding. Some of that credit may be down to the production touch of Ben H. Allen, whose partnerships in recent years include duties on records by Deerhunter, Washed Out and Animal Collective.
But it’s Powers’s songwriting that ultimately wins the day. Pelican Man, coupled with following track and single Dropla, undoubtedly provide the album’s highlight, a central duo so monumental in this landscape you sense the album’s essence emanate from this pairing. Among its many similarities to the outro of Tame Impala’s Apocalypse Dreams (listen to them both, you’ll see), Pelican Man sounds at first lackadaisical, but is irresistibly gorgeous: swirling chords and piano loops break out of the reverb surf in an utterly hypnotic progression, panning across the speakers like a memory just out of reach. Power’s vocal, harmonised on this rare occasion, and the acoustic drum fills that pierce the weighty ambience are only a short stretch from John Lennon’s I Am the Walrus; I don’t make that comparison lightly.
In contrast, Dropla hops along like a butterfly at an easy pace, wavering piano ‘drops’ forming a three-note melody that hangs around far longer than you’d guess at first listen. The song breaks down at each verse for Powers to repeat ‘You’ll never die’ over and over again, at first with what sounds like childlike naivety, but turning later to bitter disbelief. Powers has said elsewhere that this album comes from a place very personal, and an increasing interest in the blurring of physical and spiritual worlds. The tale about losing a loved one in Dropla best represents the uneasiness it seems Powers has experienced in making this record, even if he is happy with the finished product: the lush, wide-eyed soundscapes with a playful heart never quite assuage the anxiety in the lyrics of songs such as Raspberry Cane and Sleep Paralysis, even as they are rendered through all sorts of effects set out to misdirect those who are listening.
Whether Trevor Powers does have something to hide, whether the personal nature of his writing process makes these songs hard for him to talk about, he’ll have to come up with a whole lot of answers soon. Wondrous Bughouse is a warm, melodic, enchanting delight, a densely layered yet still lo-fi pop album that stands up against the more psychedelic hallmarks of The Flaming Lips, Tame Impala and more. The buzz around Youth Lagoon is only going to grow, and Wondrous Bughouse should be an album to immerse yourself in as soon as possible. Come on in: the water’s lovely.