Bigger, louder, deeper, and weirder, the second album from Youth Lagoon is the sort of follow-up that exceeds its predecessor in every way.
Boise's Trevor Powers, 24, toys with expectations — both his own and those from the indie rock world that was watching his development closely — on Wondrous Bughouse, released in March by Fat Possum.
While Youth Lagoon's 2011 debut, The Year of Hibernation, sounds like exactly that, this new record is pop at its most fragmented — an ambitious sonic exploration of the human psyche in which experimentation remains in the service of the melody of each song.
Lyrically, Powers' first album stuck to themes of isolation and protection, a true sort of hibernation that reflected on not only his creation but the mind from which it sprang. Wondrous Bughouse, referencing a quaint term for an insane asylum, is an album about what potentially can go wrong with that sort of seclusion, when solitude can become a trap, when introspection turns dark.
"Youth Lagoon is something so personal to me because writing music is how I sort my thoughts, as well as where I transfer my fears," Powers says on the Fat Possum press release. "I'm not a gifted speaker, so explaining things is difficult for me. But music always makes sense."
The lyrics come across like a brain scan that reaches beyond biology to reveal, if not decode, thoughts. Whether scattered thoughts given voice or transmissions from the subconscious, the words creep in like fractured dreamscapes, laced with suggestion but typically indirect. Powers' song titles, on the other hand, land meaning like punches: "Through Mind and Back," "Attic Doctor," "Sleep Paralysis," "Third Dystopia."
"I live in a fog, one that's foremade / While my physical body's turning in my grave / The spirit's forgiven, building in your brain / But it doesn't know how," sings Powers on "Dropla," before settling into a chorus — "You'll never die, you'll never die" — he repeats like a spell or a mantra.
Weirdly unsettling at times, the music itself accurately and captivatingly frames Powers' lyrics of mortality and mental fragility. The cover art, an ornately detailed drawing of almost paisley psychedelic imagery, pushes in the same direction. The total effect is a significantly stranger album than The Year of Hibernation, yet one built carefully and cohesively.
Helping to guide and reveal Powers' artistic growth is Ben Allen, whose production, engineering, and mixing credits span from The Notorious B.I.G. and Diddy to Animal Collective and Deerhunter. Together, they deftly add layers to form an expansive sound, anchored by a booming low end that allows for the atmospheric flourishes to climb higher.
Powers' skyward aspirations peak on "Raspberry Cane," nearly seven minutes of trippy bliss, an uplifting repeated melody that blends into swirls of synth and electronics. Best representing the album's heftier side is "Mute," a burst of steady, thumping drums that lead into a long closing guitar solo that takes off on an exploratory march all its own.
With Wondrous Bughouse, Youth Lagoon is now two-for-two on "Best New Music" tags from Pitchfork. The songs stretch out — both lyrically and musically — much further than on The Year of Hibernation. It's an impressive yet natural progression and an encouraging sign of even more to come.