After burning in the sun for more than an hour, I was about to walk into Warehouse 1100, where Pitchfork was hosting its party showcase of indie rock up-and-comers. This was, of course, at South by Southwest, the film/technology/music shitshow that attracts angel-headed hipsters to Austin, Texas every year. My fellow Polar Bear representatives and I hadn’t anticipated the long line (apparently our obscure tastes just weren’t obscure enough), so we tried to look as nonchalant as possible as Pitchfork-approved acts like Mac DeMarco and Waxahatchee came and went.
We made it in, however, after much kvetching about the VIPs (were they really all that important?) who sauntered into the at-capacity venue ahead of us, and made our way to the outdoor stage. With our fake plastic sunglasses—free as part of a Nikon ad campaign—and an authentic love of music planted firmly in our heads and hearts, we ambled outside. We were greeted by a head of curls, partially dyed turquoise and lavender, under a jauntily perched hat that obscured the big round glasses of Trevor Powers, alias Youth Lagoon.
Powers is no Justin Timberlake, but I couldn’t stop my fanboy from showing a little bit. His debut album, “The Year of Hibernation,” was my favorite record of 2011. The album sounds like it was recorded in his closet (it was), but far from seeming claustrophobic, it soars with doe-eyed optimism and resounding crescendos. If it weren’t for the cigarette he was taking drags from, Powers would have looked no older than seventeen. That’s part of his charm; he’s a 24-year-old who dropped out of college to turn his adolescent imaginings into reality.
Powers only furthered the growth of his reputation with the announcement of his follow-up album, titled “Wondrous Bughouse” (the dude has a knack for pleasant-sounding assonance). He chose a tripped-out sketch that looks like it belongs in a middle schooler’s math notebook for an album cover, and performs songs with titles like “Raspberry Cane” and “Daisyphobia.” It appears that Powers is regressing into the Wiggles.
But then you turn the music on, and the reverb-laden instrumental opener “Through Mind and Back” sounds like a descent into, well, the mind and back, with ominous blips and beeps. Given the record’s cotton candy exterior, it’s rather like the trip on Willy Wonka’s boats into the abyss. The song fades slowly out and “Mute” blossoms in its place, immediately louder and more confident than any song on Powers’ soft-spoken debut.
The lilting melody amplifies the singer’s claim that we live in a “3D world,” but Powers then launches into a fable where “the clock is in control” and the “devil tries to pluck” his mind. As the song’s latter half slows down, Powers turns inwards, singing that he’ll “never see” all the “corpses” as a horseman draws him closer to death.
By filtering the themes of mortality and decay in “Wondrous Bughouse” through the lens of wonder he first explored on “The Year of Hibernation,” Powers adds a poignant perspective to innocence and childhood. Standout track “Dropla” sounds like a paean to a sick imaginary friend who “lives in a cave, one made of drapes.” “You’ll never die” he pleads on repeat, willing the supplication to come true.
And remember “Raspberry Cane?” Though the title evokes the color red, Powers sounds much more like Lady Macbeth than the Kool-Aid Man when he sings “I’m polluted by my blood / So help me cut it out.” He never seems self-loathing, but the Elliot Smith-meets-Animal Collective lyrics are indeed unnerving, especially considering their insidiousness, sugarcoated by the whistles and whirs of the music. But that’s mortality; it sneaks up on you, whether you’re singing about physical bodies lying in graves or at South by Southwest in a debauched race against the limits of endurance. If this is human frailty’s soundtrack, well, play on, Powers. “Here’s to death, drink up.”