A lot can happen in three years. Take the case of Joshua Powell, for instance. Three years ago was the last time the world heard a full-length release from Powell, at the time as Joshua Powell & The Great Train Robbery. Since then, the indie collective has undergone numerous personnel changes and one significant name change, with the “& the Great Train Robbery” part since being taken out entirely, despite there still being a band involved. And with their newest effort, a (not-so) slight sonic change is present as well.
The first thing you need to know about PSYCHO/TROPIC is that it is not an album you can just put on in the background and expect to be able to fully experience. Rather, it’s an intricate, extensive body of work that will require your complete and undivided attention. The compositions here are lengthier across the board—the 11-track LP clocks in at just shy of an hour in runtime—and, in turn, have quite a bit more going on musically also, oftentimes sprawling with similarly lengthy outros or musical interludes. Even the songs that initially struck me as relatively straight-forward or minimalistic (see “Econoline,” “Supercareful,” and “Chakra #6”) are all actually quite complex upon taking a more thought out (one might say careful) listen.
The record opens with a heartfelt tribute to Powell’s late grandfather, whose raspy singing leads straight into the massive, haunting “Black Lodge (water),” a track that in many ways gives the listener the perfect picture of what they should expect for the next 59 minutes. It’s subtle and yet grandiose, with epic undertones and yet an undeniably ethereal feel to it, encapsulating in one definitive song a trend that Powell will set for the remainder of the album, albeit often spread out across multiple different songs the rest of the way.
Grandiose: like the steady build throughout and the changeup of drumbeats that kicks in near the end of “’59 Tomahawk,” or the rise and fall of tracks such as “Mandala in Reverse” and “Chakra #6.” Epic: like the culmination of “Bright deceiver!” that results in its desert-like outro, or the roaring guitars that conclude an incredibly dreamy indie pop tune in “Econoline.” Subtle: like the siren-esque sound on “Black Lodge (water),” or the still-present electro vibes on the otherwise significantly Southern-leaning “Ascension.” Ethereal: like the fluttering flute that can be heard on the chilling “Supercareful” and the closer “Chakra #6.” It’s all here, and it’s all executed effortlessly and seamlessly.
Another noticeable characteristic of PSYCHO/TROPIC is the blending of all sorts of different musical styles and flavors that Powell and company are able to employ. As Joshua Powell & The Great Train Robbery, the folksy indie rock band with psychedelic tendencies was always difficult to pin down into any one particular sub-genre. Now that Powell has wandered even further into the great unknown (touching on such territories as progressive, electronic, indie pop, and even world music), attempting to describe his overall sound on this album in one sentence feels almost ludicrous, and certainly counterintuitive.
Lyrically, Powell does a fine job of using wordplay throughout—between that and all of his sly religious and pop culture references, the only other album I heard this year with as many clever one-liners as PSYCHO/TROPIC was The 1975’s highly-acclaimed third LP. And with cuts like the steady ¾ rocker “Spirit of the Trailer Park” and the slower, harmonica-driven “Ascension,” such lyricism is present without any regard to tempo or overall feel of each song, which no doubt adds to the record’s sense of overall cohesiveness.
PSYCHO/TROPIC is unlike anything Powell has done before, and is leagues ahead of any and all of his previous material, which says something considering how much I enjoyed Alyosha three-plus years ago. There really is no single conceivable “weak link” here. Alyosha may have been “organic and deliberate, exuding quality,” but there was still something missing. On this newest LP, however, that feeling of “something missing” is markedly absent. Nothing is missing this time around, despite my numerous listens trying to prove otherwise. Indeed, PSYCHO/TROPIC is one of the best releases to see the light of day in the past year.