After the success of The Year Of Hibernation, Trevor Powers’ DIY dream-pop debut, he had a lot of options and resources available for his Youth Lagoon follow-up. But how would he use them, if at all? Much of The Year Of Hibernation’s quiet majesty was derived from its isolated-loner aesthetic; removing Powers’ minimalist songs from his Idaho home seemingly would, in many ways, destroy them. Luckily, Wondrous Bughouse proves that Youth Lagoon’s curiously strange sonic universe loses no intimacy in the transfer to the studio; nor does a broader scope and bigger sound compromise Powers’ charmingly odd quirks and experimentation.
Whereas The Year Of Hibernation dealt somewhat straightforwardly with its personal subject matter, the follow-up is decidedly more abstract, probing the private recesses of the mind where emotions are expressed through fantasy and delusion. From the title—“bughouse” is old-fashioned slang for an insane asylum—to the art-brut-style hand-drawn cover, the record deals in a mildly sinister form of psychedelia. “Attic Doctor,” for example, dances and twirls in a demented carnival, while the dramatic “Pelican Man” builds to a maelstrom of piano, keyboard effects, and a chanted portrayal of mania. (“Demons lie in your bed / Questioning everything you’ve ever said / It’s not true, it’s all in your head.”) Frequent ruminations on mortality abound, most notably on the lushly painful “Dropla,” in which a deathbed visitor repetitively insists “you’ll never die,” in the morose imagery of the beautifully grandiose “Mute” (“As I hear the horses drawing close / over all the corpses we love most / I’ll never see them”), and on the soaring “Raspberry Cane.” (“Pour the ashes into a cup / mix with water / ‘Here’s to death, drink up.’”)
These long-form, complex compositions showcase a true elevation in Powers’ songwriting, with layered pop structures, spellbinding ambience, and a frenzy of instruments and otherworldly sounds forming a dense auditory collage. Across its 10 tracks, the record treks a grippingly suspenseful journey from one thrilling climax to the next, each ascent driven by an intense percussive cadence of drums, claps, snaps, and clicks (for which live backing musicians and new producer Ben H. Allen, a former hip-hop engineer who’s recently worked with Animal Collective and Washed Out, surely deserve credit). With Wondrous Bughouse, Powers has deftly managed his expanded musical toolset to craft an impressively sophisticated and compelling—yet often unsettling—collection of psych-noise arrangements, with much to burrow into and explore on repeat listens.