Richard Youngs is contrary, disconcerting and unpredictable in equal measure. Now he is also… country! According to the publicity, his new release Summer Through My Mind is “a country music album”. Fortunately Youngs’ idea of country includes a revenge fantasy spoken word piece, lyrics written by Young’s 6-year old son, and sound effects that’ll make you jump. Lay Lady Lay this ain’t.
It will come as a relief to anyone who knows and loves Youngs that he still treads the path he has been following since 1990, over an impossible number of previous albums. Despite attempts to fit him into boxes marked ‘improv’ or ‘free folk’, his appeal lies in the fact that he is always irresistibly himself. Last year’s Amaranthine set the bar high – difficult and strange, but impossible to dislodge from the skull.
Summer Through My Mind is fabulously weird, in a semi-suppressed manner. It is full of melancholy, nothing like the conventional idea of what summer music should be. Oddness keeps bursting through, a harsh harmonica blast on the sweet ‘Goodbye Oslo Rose’ and a sound like a police siren in the next room on ‘Binary Stars Over Venice’, a song both bizarre and brilliant.
The opening track is ‘Mountain of Doom’, a country-folk lament on guitar and harmonica, in which Youngs complains “All my heroes are jumping off the cliff / I see them all / it’s just for show.” It is a melancholy, cryptic ballad, rather beautiful and misleadingly straight-faced. The rest of the album consists of songs of wildly varying length and tone, from the 46 second ‘Misjudgement’ with its awkward, cantering, off-beat strum to the 11 minutes plus of ‘Spin Me Endless in the Universe’.
‘Spin Me’ is one of Summer Through My Mind’s twin poles, a hypnotic epic sung to the accompaniment of two banjo notes that repeat and repeat, and a slide guitar played by an excited bumble bee. “Imagine that we are undefeatable” sings Youngs in a seductive falsetto. There’s Incredible String Band in there, and Jandek too, but really it is a song that does precisely what it pleases and is thoroughly great as a result.
The opposing pole is the maddening ‘The Story of Jhon’, a lengthy, fantastical story about boys, boats and bombs. Each verse is narrated by alternative US icon Steve Joyner, and then sung back by Richard Youngs, a technique which verges on the unlistenable although, strangely, it makes slightly more sense with each listen. It will defeat some, for sure, but there is more than just perversity in Youngs’ method even if his ways are sometimes mysterious.
Summer Through My Mind is fresh and exciting stuff, from a man who seems to thrive by flitting under the radar. Youngs’ music will remain a minority taste and some will perhaps be put off, assuming that it is only for insiders. However, this album stands on its own merits, and the quality of Young’s songwriting drags you in by the ears. A strange and beautiful thing, Summer Through My Mind deserves to be heard.