This is Richard Youngs’ “country” album. But first: how did he get here? Sort of on a dare. Youngs asked Ba Da Bing Records head Ben Goldberg for a list of “dream record” ideas he’d like to hear from Youngs, and from that list, Youngs chose country. As he told Ben Chasny (Six Organs of Admittance, Comets on Fire) in an interview in BOMB Magazine, “I haven’t got a country bone in my body.”
Youngs has stretched himself with other stunt albums lately too, including everything from electro-pop (Beyond the Valley of the Ultrahits, 2009), to d-beat (Barbed Wire Explosion in the Kingdom of Atlantis, 2013), to self-proclaimed “ecstatic house” (Like a Neuron, 2009), to “the perfect Volcanic Tongue record” (Inceptor, 2012), and more. But even across such impressive variation, each record is quintessentially Richard Youngs, a quality evoked not only through the name on the cover, but also through a few consistent elements: patience, a lack of clutter (Youngs usually works with few elements in each of his compositions), and a penchant for repetition.
Summer Through My Mind is, in fact, a collection of sparsely arranged, repetitive Richard Youngs songs before it’s a country record. The closest thing to “country” about it is that it collects eight emotional, singer-songwriter-style songs, with Youngs’ reedy voice gliding over acoustic guitar, all of it embellished with harmonica, pedal steel, and banjo. Sort of country-ish, right?
Youngs voice has a striving, pensive quality on the excellent opening track, “Mountain of Doom.” Lurching along with a mournfully strummed acoustic and an asthmatic harmonica, his repetition of the downer lyrics (“Every hero has a mountain of doom,” “It’s just for show”) makes for a hypnotic, slow-burn listen. And then there are two massive tracks: the dreamy “Spin Me Endless in the Universe,” which floats along with nice layered vocals and repetitive plucking, and “The Story of Jhon,” which requires a lot more attention. The latter features Simon Joyner reading a Robert Louis Stevenson-style tale of an evil father and his boy, originally written by Youngs as a child. The reading is accompanied by Youngs singing the story in the background over slide-acoustic guitar. It’s hard to do anything else while listening to it.
And then there are the acoustic pop hits: “Misjudgment,” “Summer Through My Mind,” “The Future Is So Different Today,” and “Binary Stars Over Venice.” If end-of-summer-schedule college radio still happens, these would be good adds. “Summer Through My Mind” and “Binary Stars Over Venice” might be mistaken, at first, for Guided By Voices, and I mean that in a good way for all involved. But my personal favorite is album closer “Goodbye Oslo Rose.” Over distant EBow’d guitar and harmonica, Youngs sounds like he’s coming from that same burned-out basement in which Neil Young wrote one of his best, most vulnerable tracks.
Few artists have built up so much goodwill that they can make stunt genre records in genres they say they don’t understand, but Youngs is thrillingly at that point in his journey. Over the course of 60+ releases since 1990, he has left his singular mark on electronic minimalism, folk, noise, improvisation, and many cross-sections of those concerns. Being prolific is nothing new in underground music, but what makes Youngs so impressive is that he projects Richard Young-ness over a wide swath of music possible and/or not yet available. Which is precisely what provides long-time listeners a wonderful tension in the context of Summer Through My Mind: not only is it exciting to hear Youngs challenge himself with genre conventions, but it’s also comforting to know that no matter which mode Youngs adopts, it always sounds like him. And it always is.