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Trevor Powers - Mulberry Violence Music Album Reviews

With Youth Lagoon in the rear-view, Trevor Powers remains a sure-handed sculptor of sound. His voice here surges to the fore, newly exposed and digitally treated.

Trevor Powers used to be the smallest thing in his music. As Youth Lagoon, he whispered his doubts miles beneath massive, billowing guitars. He sounded both dwarfed and enveloped by the sounds he made, and you could pull his records around you like a blanket and huddle inside it with him.

Mulberry Violence, his first record under his own name, takes a rusty trowel to this sound and disembowels it. Indie rock, with its rounded edges and primary colors, is gone. The drums are broken, loud, and looped, and they splatter when they hit. The silences are thicker, they yawn wider, and the sounds they separate tend to clip out like shorting wires. The stylistic touchpoints seem to be the creeping dread of Portishead, the ragged voice manipulations of Bon Iver’s 22, A Million, the weedy urban-ruin expanses of King Krule. Powers leaned this direction on 2015’s Savage Hills Ballroom and shortly afterward, he declared that Youth Lagoon was over. Mulberry Violence leaps with both feet: You get the sense that Powers wouldn’t rest until he looked over his shoulder and Youth Lagoon was nowhere to be seen.

In this new environment, Powers’ voice surges to the fore, like maybe we’ve never actually heard this guy at all. He still sounds small, maybe a little frightened, but he is exposed here, and what you hear has a menacing edge. On “Squelch,” he distorts and treats his voice until it bubbles from the bottom of the mix like a ghoul. On “Film It All,” he nearly melds with the screaming digital static bursting around him. The violence he does to his own singing feels personal, even vengeful, like watching someone scribble out a picture of their own face until the paper rips.

His lyrics, accordingly, only leak through in fragments. They hint at death, the mortification of the spirit, the fragility of the body: “Safety isn’t real anymore/It’s just a thing we say,” he sings on “Film It All,” with his voice needling in the red. On “Ache,” he shares a harrowing scene of helplessness and abuse. “Nobody watched you as you grabbed the serrated kitchen knife and threatened to take my life/Nobody watched you as you dragged me to the middle of the bed, to perform the acts you said.” It hurts to hear it, and the music he builds around it only deepens the mark: The song feels furtive and private, a series of scurrying plinks and far-off drum hits that puts the moment in unsparing relief. When it erupts, midway through, into a tempest of string pads, like Nine Inch Nails remixing Shostakovich, the catharsis is almost a relief.

Powers has always been sure-handed with sculpting sound like this—even before he worked with Ben Allen on Youth Lagoon’s Wondrous Bughouse, his music sprawled commandingly across your headphone space. This skill serves him nicely now that everything around him is digital. There are still guitars, or at least hulking guitar-like Things, prowling through his arrangements, but nothing reaches your ears without submitting to some kind of manipulation or defacement. The pianos feel denatured, surreal, someone’s childhood memory of piano. The drums on “Plaster Saint” hit so hard against them that you wince, a handy microcosm for the record itself: brutality and tenderness locked in uneasy coexistence.

Mulberry Violence isn’t ugly music by any stretch—all of the bleeding, shrieking noises are undergirded by rich chords, and Powers drops little moments of untouched beauty for us to get our breath: “Playwright” gives us what sounds like a zither, a few notes of it, skipping across an echoing expanse. “Plaster Saint” and “Common Hoax” end the album on an eerily placid note. He sounds like someone who has withstood dehumanizing trauma and survived, if not intact, then at least upright; determined to persist, if thriving is no longer an option.

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