Review by Thomas Nath
An initial glance at Majical Cloudz might make one label the group as yet another set of indie outsiders, as pop musicians who refuse to conform to the mainstream ideal. Everything from their less-is-more approach to pop to their colorless aesthetic tends towards extreme minimalism. The band, composed solely of singer Devon Welsh and producer Matthew Otto, has thus far largely revolved around the interplay between Welsh’s sparse, emotive vocals and Otto’s understated soundscapes.
Their previous album, 2013’s Impersonator, found the two filling this role as introverted pop savants. Welsh, in a warm, clear, tenor, delivered pleas from the depths of his internal conflicts, while Otto mapped the somber vocals against equally austere yet melodic electronics. Impersonator’s relative simplicity added to its directness—the duo mastered the ability to capture an emotion in song without any added fluff. The album sounded like the musical equivalent of a David Lynch movie: sparse, haunting, and searingly honest in its address to the audience.
After a world tour with Lorde and a set of scrapped recording sessions, Majical Cloudz’ official followup, Are You Alone? is finally on its way October 16th. Thus far, they’ve released three songs—“Are You Alone?”, “Silver Car Crash,” and, most recently, “Downtown”—at a rate of roughly once a month since the album announcement in August. If these initial sounds are any indication, Majical Cloudz are turning their eerie, internal world inside out, changing their focus from the personal to the universal.
The titular track, released in early August, showcased many of the staples of Majical Cloudz’ previous work: Welsh delivers somber lyrics against Otto’s downcast organ environments. But it also added some significant new elements that their previous work had been lacking. A subtle kick drum propels the song forward, adding a sense of groove to the ethereal electronics. Otto strengthens the chorus by throwing in some anthemic synths as Welsh sings “I don’t know what I would do not to know.”
“Silver Car Crash” is similar in that it, too, could fill a larger setting without sacrificing the qualities that make Majical Cloudz unique. Welsh brings a gorgeous vocal melody to a narrative about dying in a car with someone you love, punctuated by Otto’s stabs of exuberant noise.
“Downtown”, released just this week, feels the most akin to Majical Cloudz’ previous work. A warbling loop of synths backs Welsh’s ecstatic lyrics about running downtown with his love. It’s the most downtempo of the songs they’ve released thus far, but it still contains an addictive melody and a slow, marching beat.
While the tracks released thus far don’t completely revamp their sound, Majical Cloudz seem to be framing their music into songs that could also function as massive crowd-pleasers. Otto’s ambient electronic backdrops have been tweaked slightly, moving from murmured loops and heavily processed bits of organ to more dynamic and expressive harmonic movements. The band’s emphasis on negative space, too, remains constant, but they seem more intent on filling this space with more conventional song structures and melodies than on past releases.
One could therefore imagine Majical Cloudz filling arenas with these songs, led as they are by powerful melodies, heavy synths, and emotive lyrics. They’ve moved from being the guy singing his emotions alone in his bedroom to the guy who can do it on a huge festival stage. Many of their topics—love, loss, depression, insecurity—haven’t changed, but they’re being conveyed in a far more universal framework.
That universality can be seen in the singles’ heavily referential nature. “Are You Alone?” nicks a couple notable lyrics about “red wine and sleeping pills” from Radiohead’s “Motion Picture Soundtrack.” The story in “Silver Car Crash” about desire to die in an auto accident with someone you love is directly from the Smiths’ classic “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out.” And on “Downtown,” Welsh makes the remark that he’s “singing to [himself]: I wanna hold your hand.” It’s unclear whether all of these references are intentional, but they serve to situate the band in a long lineage of pop music that has used the form to both address serious lyrical themes and explore new ways of making sound.
On Impersonator, Welsh sang about monsters hanging over his crib as a kid and made claims such as “I’m a liar, I swear I make music.” It’s a far cry to now hear him sing simple, frequently used lines such as “it just feels good being in your arms” or “I am in perfect love with you.” While these lines might feel clichéd and overused in the hands of another group, when interspersed against the genuine uniqueness of Majical Cloudz’ musical structure, the sentiment behind them somehow rings truer.
If these first three songs are any indication, Majical Cloudz are attempting to bring their stories to a larger audience, keeping true to what makes them unique while concurrently crafting their songs in a more relatable way. All of this reminds us, from a band that made its living carving out an isolated, desolate approach to pop, that no, we are not alone.
Are You Alone? will be released October 16th through Matador Records.
But you can also listen now here.