My first exposure to Youth Lagoon (a.k.a. Trevor Powers) was the under-saturated video for “Montana,” which managed to elevate a simple, piano-based cut from his debut, The Year of Hibernation, into a rather heart-wrenching odyssey of forgone Americana. The song is as good as any an example of Powers’s music: inherently visual, perhaps even cinematic, with a heavy use of grainy percussive sounds to punctuate all of the blustery reverb. But while The Year of Hibernation is certainly a dreamy album, there was a sense that Powers was too often somber to the point of bleakness, something that he’s clearly taken into consideration on Wondrous Bughouse.
The album is exactly what its title implies, possessing both a queasy, burlesque quality and a thick layer of lo-fi psychedelia that bubble together in a kind of drunken sing-along tandem. The resulting album is essentially a nightmarish funhouse take on MGMT’s acidy Congratulations, the perfect soundtrack for viewing faded family vacation slides through a warped carousel projector. Powers’s slightly deranged, adolescent voice dispenses wide-eyed observations while synths twinkle like smashed music boxes, plodding basslines spiral off into oblivion, and a constantly roiling backdrop of noise passes through aimless and cloud-like. With its whistling showtune-style melodies, the waltzing, twirling “Attic Doctor” is a good example of Powers’s newfound but ill-fated sense of humor, possessing a kind of capricious superficiality that seems to infect every track.
The only moments that really work in Powers’s favor are on opener “The Bath,” where he manages to concoct a powerfully bittersweet combination of watery, faded loops, and “Mute,” where his childlike sense of wonderment lends the track’s climbing guitar peels an emotional heft mostly absent on the rest of the album’s offerings. Otherwise, the newfound whimsical approach mostly falls flat, a misstep by Powers as he attempts to follow up The Year of Hibernation‘s sobriety with some well-meaning but ultimately heavy-handed playfulness. With both the humor and production style of his densely layered music remaining overwrought, Wondrous Bughouse leaves a distinct impression that it was a lot more fun to make than it is to listen to.