Youth Lagoon’s ‘Wondrous Bughouse’ Is Music as Travelogue
Trevor Powers isn’t from New York. He’s not from Los Angeles. He’s not from Chicago or Paris or London or Berlin, or any exotic locale that might help explain the bubbling, ghostly harbor sounds of Youth Lagoon, his one-man bedroom raft of a project.
Powers is from Boise, Idaho. Pull up your Google Map on that one, it’s OK. That’s five hours from Robert Redford’s Park City outpost and another five from where an ex-VP hunts quail with a new heart. It’s a city of just over 200,000 that still claims Build to Spill’s Doug Martsch’s as a resident and not much else, despite its own charming history in the annals of ’90s indie culture. So make no mistake: it’s out there. And despite the growing buzz around Youth Lagoon and its 23-year-old mastermind, starting with 2010’s excellent The Year of Hibernation, an entire industry continues to fly over and around these places without much thought. The isolation might be the meme today, but the message is palpable and more than little timely.
Youth Lagoon might play with the signifiers—flange, nursery-rhymed couplets, a dense low-end—sound-tracking more populated cities these days, but it’s that sense of isolation that makes this young artist so compelling. It’s also what makes his sophomore effort Wondrous Bughouse (out this week on Mississippi-based Fat Possum) such a remarkable and necessary listen. Sometimes you just need to step outside the din to remind yourself that anyone who has it all figured out is just fooling themselves anyway. Wondrous Ballroom is the forty-minute respite reminding you that these fears, this life, this humanity are just "mortals on the run" according to Powers’s narrator here.
This is hardly "outsider art" in the Daniel Johnston sense, but rather music made outside the bubble. The sounds of distance refracted. Powers composes with such wide-eyed wonder you can’t help but admire the naive fascination at times. Or scoff at anyone who thinks all roads still lead to Brooklyn for this sort of self-examination. Listening to someone like Powers question his own mortality using the latest in pop production from an outpost in Idaho is both a rare thing in today’s media landscape and a powerful listen. It’s the future. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, Thoreau.
Producer Ben H. Allen (Deerhunter, Animal Collective) gives Wondrous Bughouse the sonic timeliness it deserves, but it’s Powers who threads the needle between youthful exhibitionism and honest-to-god "what’s out there?" moments shared by just about anyone waiting for a late night bus. Presumably, you can still see the moon in Boise and that’s the charm of creating in isolation while trying to explain that overwhelming effect to your listener. It’s also what separates Youth Lagoon from just another collection of soupy, bedroom noodling with a digital piano.
Where The Year in Hibernation was a mission statement couched in a collection of delicate, swirling odes, Wondrous Ballroom is another step to finding comfort in those Big Questions while carving out room to breathe. These eleven tracks play out like a long walk and that’s probably where anyone should start. Powers takes your hand, starting with "Through Mind and Back," and keeps walking. "The Bath" is a clear highlight, where prehistoric rumblings are kept warm in the mix like a digital afghan, and by the time lead single "Mute" arrives the landscapes on this hike have been fully surveyed. The simple melody found in the coda comes in human scale, and as lovely as anything a powerhouse like M83 is rocking to the bleachers this summer.
But what’s a long walk if the sun never sets? Powers calls the record an exploration of where the metaphysical meets the spiritual world, a place in pop music where minimalism and hypnotic ambiance can co-exist and maybe answer some of those questions. Issues of life and death sung over waltz time and odd cartoon flourishes pulled straight from the Elephant 6 or Flaming Lips playbook. But don’t buy the close read, especially from critics looking to assign Powers such a lectern. It’s very much the red herring for an album that asks what it can do for your gut, not your head. This is music designed to stop thinking and just cross the street already, an exploration of one young man beamed from far outside the indie rock universe.
"Youth Lagoon is something so personal to me because writing music is how I sort my thoughts,” Powers explains. Taken on those terms, Wondrous Bughouse sees a Millennial creating something only as honest and natural as he knows how. Lucky for us, rarely is self-imposed solitude such a healthy muse and necessary band mate.
Still, the touchstones are mighty familiar. Youth Lagoon isn’t reinventing the wheel, one lapping MBV wave of distorted bliss at a time. Nor will it probably reach the cheap seats at the Barclays Center this summer when they open for The National in the 18,000-seat Brooklyn area. This is music-as-travelogue, music-as-moleskine, and even if you never find yourself in Boise, Powers does a fine job of building and projecting his own fragile world like postcards from a weekend in the woods. This is ultimately flyover music that uses an urban echo to small town effect.
One could argue more than a few of Youth Lagoon’s urban contemporaries could learn more from a year in the sticks than six months in a borough with too much stimulation and one too many plugins. Wondrous Bughouse, like The Year in Hibernation before it, finds a young musician exploring the most interesting and alien thing of all in this digitally overloaded universe: himself.
Photo by Josh Darr.