Trevor Powers has reinvented himself with every release. Across his first three albums as Youth Lagoon, he moved from small-town innocence to cosmopolitan experimentalism and hip-hop low end, and on to a bellicose clarity born out of personal tragedy. Then, in dramatic terms, he ended the project. On his first album under his own name, he embraced jagged, industrial-noise dread; on the second, after a scary real-life panic attack, he disappeared almost completely into found-sound abstraction.
Through a dozen years of shifting sounds and trends, Powers has remained faithful to the fundamentals of chamber pop: tunes that stick in your head and arrangements grand enough to get lost in. Also key: his cryptic existential musings, which he delivers in a voice as high and craggy as the Idaho backcountry near his hometown, Boise. His first album under the Youth Lagoon alias in eight years, Heaven Is a Junkyard, channels those familiar qualities into a reinvention that feels like a homecoming. The old anxiety and morbid fascination remain, but Powers has never sounded so confident, so at peace within himself.
Powers has teamed up this time with producer Rodaidh McDonald, whose stately electronic flourishes for artists like Gil Scott-Heron and the xx are echoed here. They achieve a sound that feels at once lush and spacious; synths, lap steel, and unorthodox percussion adorn unhurried songs that revolve around Powers’ rickety piano and quavering vocals, now free of the foggy reverb that cloaked the earliest Youth Lagoon records, but sometimes digitally treated, in keeping with his later solo work. The lyrics are as elliptical as ever, with lurid glimpses of the hardboiled 1950s crime fiction Powers admires, but they also seem more grounded in his particular Mountain West setting and strict Christian upbringing. The resulting catharsis is less a primal scream than a prayerful revelation.
Heaven Is a Junkyard follows another traumatic experience for Powers, an excruciating over-the-counter drug reaction that dragged on for eight months and temporarily robbed him of his voice. Late-album track “Trapeze Artist” addresses his recent plight with harrowing directness, but through indie pop so jubilant that by the time a guest choir sings, “Jesus, please take the pain,” it feels like a hallelujah. Lead single “Idaho Alien” paints a grim scene of self-harm that Powers acknowledges as his way of coping with feeling trapped in his own body during the illness, but its jaunty, observational air could fit anyone who feels out of place. The extraterrestrial theme seems especially apt for a singer whose ethereal vocals—once evoking Daniel Johnston, now and then verging on Jónsi—have always scanned as otherworldly.
Heaven Is a Junkyard powerfully conveys a sense of renewal. On serene opener “Rabbit,” between Alice in Wonderland references and intimations of violent conflict, he sings about “a 1980 Ford” like an older, wiser version of the kid on one of Youth Lagoon’s earliest songs who was “rolling up the windows of my ’96 Buick.” The type of vocal manipulation that Powers explored to menacing effect on 2018’s Mulberry Violence recurs toward the end of this album on “Mercury,” only here it’s for a cello-swept anthem that asks about (and sounds like) a heavenly glow.
At its best, Heaven Is a Junkyard is up there with anything in Youth Lagoon’s catalog. The radiant electronic pop of “Prizefighter,” which wouldn’t have been out of place on 2013’s Wondrous Bughouse, spins an engrossing family narrative drawn from Powers’ background as one of four homeschooled brothers; a line like, “Now all I want is fun,” hits different after a verse about a brother “who left for war with no goodbyes … ’cause he thought I’d see him cry.” The album’s centerpiece, “The Sling,” which features prolific violinist Rob Moose, feels like a breakthrough. Powers’ lyrics are terse but packed with arresting phrases—“Time would bend/Like a drunken tree,” he sings—en route to an eerie yet tender declaration: “Heaven is a junkyard/And it’s my home.” Like a contemporary Huck Finn, Powers’ narrator seeks a salvation that lies beyond what traditionalist authorities preach.
To acknowledge that flawed human beings living in the fucked-up here and now are capable of beauty and goodness may be a useful corrective to reflexive disillusionment, but it’s no guarantee of happiness. “Love is the promise that someday you’ll lose,” Powers sings with devastating certainty on the graceful finale, “Helicopter Toy.” With Heaven Is a Junkyard, he seems to have found himself anew by doing what he has always done, pursuing his musical curiosity in previously unexplored directions. On one of his earliest and most enduring songs, “17,” from 2011’s The Year of Hibernation, he sang of his mom telling him, “Don’t stop imagining/The day that you do is the day that you die.” Youth Lagoon lives.
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