Deconstructing: The National, Majical Cloudz, And Artistic Pluralism
Everything feels heavier at night. Alone at home after dark, whatever solipsistic sentiment was developing by day takes on titanic proportions. All sense of perspective vanishes along with the sunlight. Melodrama is heightened. Longing feels more desperate, mistakes more extreme. Deep, dark brooding can take over in a way that usually doesn’t happen at noon (unless you are Wayne Coyne).
In the quiet of “the Bible-black predawn,” as Jeff Tweedy put it, any music can become more resonant, even the balls-out aggression of Ke$ha or Kvelertak. Call it the movie theater effect. But some songs seem engineered for those moments of extreme reflection when the day’s noise subsides and you end up burrowed in your own headspace for hours on end. Both of next week’s biggest indie releases tap into that headspace, and gorgeously so.
The National and Majical Cloudz conjure a similar sort of melancholy. The music gets intense at times, but mostly it stays out of the way of those mesmerizing vocals, richly distinctive baritones ruminating against soft drizzles and swirling storms. Everything sounds colored by flickering candlelight or fading twilight — maybe because the morose introspection resembles a certain teenage blockbuster, or maybe because for these bands the sun is perpetually setting. Sonically and emotionally, the two of them cover much of the same territory, and they both do it exceptionally well. It wouldn’t be hard to imagine them covering each other’s songs — and how awesome would that be? (They’re in the same label family; do I smell a split 7-inch?) What would be difficult to imagine is music like this being written or recorded in the light of day.
The National has this sound down to a science. For better and worse, that’s never been so evident as on the new Trouble Will Find Me. MOMA jokes aside, new National albums really do sound like the same song repeating endlessly until you spend a few days with them and their subtle glories begin to emerge. They always threaten to tumble into Most Interesting Man In The World self-parody, but keen senses of style, grace, and humor (no, really) enable them to keep their balance no matter how many times they walk that tightrope. “Fireproof” feels like a hopeless retread of something off Boxer, then Matt Berninger turns a phrase like “Jennifer, you are not the only reason/ My head is boiling and my hands are freezing,” and your extremities start to feel those same sensations. “Demons” counters its wallowing with the genius punchline “When I walk into a room, I do not light it up/ Fuck.” “Pink Rabbits” cannibalizes High Violet‘s “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks,” but it hardly matters when it’s packed with simple, powerful lyrics like “You said it would be painless/ It wasn’t that at all,” and “You didn’t see me, I was falling apart/ I was a television version of a person with a broken heart.” The TV parallel is a strong one; the National six albums’ deep is not unlike Mad Men six seasons’ deep. Watching characters running the same circuits remains captivating because they’re such well-drawn characters and their story is presented so exquisitely. You can stay up all night basking in it, dissecting it.
Devon Welsh is still establishing his circuits. His purview is starker and spookier than the National’s flush cosmopolitan accoutrements, but it wasn’t always so sparse. 2011’s Majical Cloudz II is all over the place, leaping from dreamy Grimes-assisted post-punk to programmed guitar pop to Casiotoned chillwave rap. On there other hand, as Cole noted in last week’s interview with Welsh, the new Impersonator couldn’t be more focused. Majical Cloudz flips simple, minimal arrangements into barren canvases on which to paint morbid pictures with his foreboding croon. “Can you see me caving in?” he asks on the tremendously chilling “Childhood’s End,” a song about the weight of mortality pulling him down. “I don’t think about dying alone,” he sings on “Silver Rings,” which can only mean he totally does. And on “This Is Magic,” he imagines a murderer climbing his staircase and closing in on him: “If this song is the last thing that I do, I feel good that I sang it.” It’s harrowing shit — true midnight music. As with the National, it would be easy to write Impersonator off as self-indulgent blather, but any band that calls itself Majical Cloudz is well-versed in the art of self-deprecation.
Again, all kinds of records are fit for getting lost in after hours, and this year has birthed more than a few stunners. At SXSW, watching Waxahatchee try to translate their nocturnal quarter-life-crisis rock in broad daylight didn’t quite compute; it was wonderful, but it wasn’t made for the early afternoon. Later that night — rather, in the earliest hours of the next morning — I drowsily submerged myself in The 20/20 Experience for the first time, which is the only proper way to do it. That new Vampire Weekend album is almost too punchy to qualify, but it’s Polo fleeced with somnambulant beauties. And lest you forget it, we got a new My Bloody Valentine LP this year. (People forget these things so fast.) Each one of those LPs inhabits its own space on the moonlight listening spectrum, but the National and Majical Cloudz are in a different class entirely; they might as well be werewolf music. On a sunny day, this stuff might wither and die, but after dark it’s liable to slice you open.
There’s a common saying about spiritual truth that suggests all faiths are just different paths to the top of the same mountain. I can see the potential beauty in such an idea, but I don’t buy it. Logically, it doesn’t hold water. If different sects of people claim to have objective, exclusive truth, they can’t all be right. That’s how matters of fact work.
Feelings, though? There are lots of ways to get to the same feeling. Impersonator and Trouble Will Find Me are testament to that (though it might be more appropriate to say they’re taking different paths to the bottom of a valley). For all their shared sound and sentiment, they arrived at their brooding by remarkably different routes, and those routes say a lot about how “indie rock” has evolved in the dozen years since The National’s first LP. It’s very much an old school/new school divide. Consider:
•The National is a sizable group and semi-literally a family unit, with two pairs of brothers in the band (three if you count roadie/filmmaker Tom Berninger). Majical Cloudz began as Welsh’s solo project, and even though Matthew Otto is in the band now, it still reads as Welsh’s personal outpouring; as The Village Voice‘s Devon Maloney noted, whatever Otto does in the current live show “could just as easily be a boom box.”
•The National toured hard over many years to build an audience. Although they’ve been traveling a lot this year, Majical Cloudz built a following primarily by guesting on a Grimes song and posting music online.
•Relatedly, the National moved to Brooklyn to get internet-famous; Welsh stayed home in Quebec and let the internet come to him. Without the evolved cyberspace of 2013, most of us wouldn’t be hearing about him for a few more years.
•The National is a classic guitar band. In Majical Cloudz, Welsh sings over keyboard-heavy electronic productions in a format that approximates the most intense karaoke night you ever stumbled into.
That last distinction is crucial. When Majical Cloudz came through my town in January, I remember thinking the performance style was something that wouldn’t survive outside dive bars and art galleries — partially because Welsh was putting himself out there with such raw transparency that it could be perceived as confrontational, but also because there are still purists out there who would probably reject Majical Cloudz on the basis that their show doesn’t involve playing instruments in any traditional sense. Yeah, the National has a decade-plus head start, but it’s hard to imagine this version of Majical Cloudz ever headlining a 5,000-capacity amphitheater like the National will next month in Columbus, even a hypothetical future Majical Cloudz six albums deep into an acclaimed career, even Majical Cloudz doing a National covers set.
Maybe someday it would fly, though. (Seriously crossing my fingers for that “Majical Cloudz covers the National” tour, by the way.) People treat music like religion, and religions are notoriously slow to evolve. As Mike Barthel pointed out in his defense of Auto-Tune, such radical phenomena as sheet music and chords were once accused of killing music. Modes of communication were transitory then, and they still are now, but it’s slow going. As I noted in my deconstruction of Christian music, change is always hard-fought because people are creatures of habit, but change is inevitable because people are perpetually restless for something fresh. Ten years ago I wouldn’t have believed an act like Deadmau5, he of “we all hit play” confessional fame, could headline music festivals, but here we are. The rise of hip-hop already changed a lot of people’s minds about what constitutes “real music“; now the latest wave of EDM is further altering that sphere for a new generation.
Those tendencies play out on a macro level, but they start on a micro level within a band’s internal dynamic. Anyone who has been passionately invested in a band has experienced the furious fan-base infighting about whether the band should change or stay the same. There are still extremely stubborn people out there arguing Wilco should have never made the experimental Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and instead stayed in the alt-country lane where they started, but I don’t think I would have fallen in love with Wilco if not for that record. These kinds of debates rage 24/7 on the internet (and I hear historical re-enactors sometimes stage them in record stores). In Tom’s Premature Evaluation of Trouble Will Find Me, he called the National’s strict adherence to a signature sound “a reassuring and comfortable thing,” a sentiment I agree with. At a certain point, though, more of the same can start to seem pretty drab. I felt that way when Spoon released Transference; they seemed to have tipped over from brilliantly tweaking their aesthetic to merely recycling it.
Sometimes artists successfully reinvent themselves, and there will always be a music critic there to praise them for that. But more often fresh sounds come from fresh voices. Enter Majical Cloudz, a group that has framed deeply familiar human emotions in a sound so singular it’s practically alien. Welsh’s soul-baring is magnetic, but so is the allure of the new. Returning to Mad Men, the current season drives home this point repeatedly: Once the excitement of a new arrangement has worn off, possibility is always more intoxicating than reality. Frankly, though, the “right” way to do music has little to do with means and everything to do with ends. When a record cuts to the smoldering core of humanity as effectively as Impersonator and Trouble Will Find Me do, it doesn’t matter how they get there.