When you use the label bedroom music, it indicates that what you’re hearing is soft and introspective. It suggests something unpolished but in a positive, raw and honest way. You wouldn’t be wrong to call 2011′s The Year Of Hibernation, Trevor Powers’s debut album as Youth Lagoon, a collection of bedroom music: No, Powers didn’t actually write it all in his bedroom in Boise, ID, but his memorably melodic swirls of songs had that quiet, do-it-yourself-er quality. A better hypothetical space out of which Powers’s writing could have emerged would be the closet in that bedroom. The whole bedroom is too big for creating songs that intimate, too mammoth for a voice that shy. When you listen to that album, it makes less sense for Powers to be sitting on his bed and more for the wide-eyed then-22-year-old to be singing softly into a tape recorder while peering out from the slats in the closet door.
Powers isn’t in his closet on his sophomore album, Wondrous Bughouse. He’s not even in his bedroom. He’s out in the world, and what he’s found there is confidence in his work. Youth Lagoon’s music has always been expansive, but on the debut LP, it took Powers at least half of a song to get there. Now, he jumps in with the opening note. “Dropla,” the album’s first single, was the early indicator of a bolder musician. After only a few shakes of a sleigh bell, Powers’s voice emerges in the song sounding clearer than ever, despite a hefty increase in instrumentation. He sings nasally, somewhere between a croak and a whisper. It’s an innocent and sincere voice that shows no ill intentions as he reaches his “arm across the bed” to “hold your hand.”
Powers shares that vocal sweetness with singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston. Like Johnston, Powers has a gift for simple melodies and tends to turn you on your head by following poignant oneliners like “To watch is not to see” with thoughts like “Doomsday’s coming, let the Earth attack.” Another thread that connects Powers and Johnston concerns mysteries of the mind. Johnston has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, the effects of which were documented in the film The Devil And Daniel Johnston. When I spoke to Powers earlier this year, he talked about his ongoing struggle with anxiety and expressed a fascination with mental illness. “It’s kind of a beautiful thing at the same time that people can be that in tune with themselves even though it’s like living in a nightmare,” he said. His album title refers to a nickname for a mental institution. The art came from a woman named Marcia Blaessle, whose drawing Powers found in a book from the 1970s that featured art from teenagers who’d been hospitalized for heavy drug use. And then there was his inspiration for the songs: people whose minds never turn off—for better or for worse.
Knowing that that idea was on Powers’s mind will change how you experience the album. The Year Of Hibernation had psychedelic leanings, but now the music spills out in kaleidoscopic waves, guitars bending, synthesizers whimpering, drums lolling around. A shining, triumphant guitar line rings out on “Mute” while Powers imagines something darker: “The devil tries to plague my mind, but he can’t quite get inside.” The jaunty, oom-pa-pa of a big top parade on “Attic Doctor” backs a story of a grinning doctor telling a woman she can’t have kids. The circus sounds return in a slower form on “Sleep Paralysis,” a signal of Powers’s unraveling, as he spies “the body that escaped from the lake where she drowned.”
Is Powers taking things too far with the hallucinations, the freak-show sounds, the Syd Barrett-like nonsense rhymes? Yes, sometimes it goes a little overboard in trying to establish the melting-mind atmosphere. But I doubt this album will get any Silver Linings Playbook-style backlash because Powers isn’t pretending to make a pubic service announcement or using mental illness as a surface-level gimmick; matters of the mind are what make up his entire album, from art to title to topic. Powers is going all in on this one, inviting you into his Wondrous Bughouse and daring to pour light into an often dark place.