You never, as a music dork, stop learning this lesson, but the truth behind it stands: It’s always, always a bad idea to dismiss an artist based on a terrible name. That rule is right up there with “horrendous rappers get better all the time, so stop believing it can’t happen,” and we break the rule just as often as that one. Case in point: Majical Cloudz. And, I mean, holy gods what an awful name. It’s name that conjures Trapper Keeper designs and rap-metal fake-toughness (that Z!) at the same damn time, and it makes the group seem, immediately, like a halfassed joke, like the sort of band whose music videos consist entirely of floating psychedelic CGI landscapes. And it didn’t help that, up until now, the only things that most of us knew about them were that they were from Montreal and that they were friends with Grimes; Grimes is turning into a pure force of cultural badassery, but she can still align herself with some wack shit. At SXSW, I didn’t just skip multiple chances to see Majical Cloudz live; I actually made the “pssh” noise out loud when presented with the opportunity. This was stupid. This was a mistake on par with high-school me hating on Daft Punk because they had “punk” in their name but weren’t actually punk. As their new album Impersonator makes crystal-clear; Majical Cloudz don’t just make good music; they make the sort of good music that creeps its way into your soul and stays there. They are not a thing to be dismissed.
Majical Cloudz, as you’ve probably learned by now, don’t make the nostalgic hypercolor neon synthpop that their name would seem to imply. Rather, they make stark and unflinching music that stares hard at uncertainty and inner weakness, that throws itself all the way into the stuff without ever attempting to come up with an answer to it. And even though there are two people in the group, it’s solitary and obsessive music. The focus is squarely on frontman Devon Welsh, who started Majical Cloudz off as a solo project and whose voice is the first thing you notice when you first hear Impersonator. It’s thanks to Welsh that Impersonator belongs to a distinguished lineage of albums from tuba-voiced loners howling into the abyss, sounding tough and robust but helpless to make sense of the existential threats that surround them: Songs Of Leonard Cohen, Springsteen’s Nebraska, the self-titled Suicide album. Welsh’s words are never about specificity. They’re nebulous floating bad-faith meditations, and they ask big questions. Like: Do the things I do matter at all? Or: Are there things out there in the dark, waiting to destroy me? The title track, which opens the album, is about how Welsh feels like a fraud when he sings, how he worries whether the song he’s singing justifies its own existence, or his existence. His words are stern but open-ended, and sometimes they offer small slithers of hope. Mostly, though, Welsh uses precise strokes, and minimal wording, to present himself as a guy who can’t get out of his own head. “I feel just like a kid,” he sings on “This Is Magic.” “I see monsters standing over my bed. And then they fall in.”
Welsh has a rich and warm voice, a professorial holler than never leaves itself vulnerable to easy comparison. He’s a great singer, but I’m not exactly sure he can carry a tune. It doesn’t matter, because he doesn’t need to. Majical Cloudz songs don’t follow any structure beyond simple repetition, and even that gets jerked around and varied. So Welsh isn’t tasked with delivering verses and choruses; instead, he gets to let that barrel-chested moan wander around in the vast chasms of Matthew Otto’s music. It wasn’t until I saw the lyrics actually written down that I realized that the staggering “Silver Rings” only had three phrases, repeated over and over: “Silver rings / Stay with me / I don’t think about dying alone” — the implication of that last line, of course, being that he thinks about dying alone all the time but that he tries to put up a brave front. Welsh starts out conversational, delivering those words with minimal affect, but by the end he’s absolutely howling them, stretching them into pretzels, wearing his throat bloody on them. And by the time he’s done with them, all those little phrases contain volumes of feeling that he, and we, can’t quite access even though we know they’re there. And on the final track “Notebook,” Welsh starts things out this way: “Hey man, sooner or later you’ll be dead / I want you to know I’ve got respect.” And somehow, that’s comforting.
The album’s comforts mostly come from Otto, whose backing tracks are built on loops but which always sound rich and full and resonant rather than thin and synthy. We hear pianos, violins, organs, ghost choirs. And even if we don’t know what’s real and what’s an electronic facsimile, it all sounds organic enough that it doesn’t matter. It’s a warm backing thrum, one that never pulls attention away from Welsh’s voice or his words. But if someone were to release an instrumental version of Impersonator, it would be a pretty incredible ambient album, one full of the sorts of hums and tones and crackles that make your everyday activities sound way more epic and meaningful as they’re playing on headphones. “Impersonator” rests on a screwed-up backwards vocal loop and a churchy organ that blur their way into the background the instant Welsh opens his mouth. “Childhood’s End” has shivery heartbeat-thumps and eerie keyboard float worthy of Mezzanine-era Massive Attack, as well as a cello that reminds me of the Nirvana Unplugged album. “Mister” is practically the gothic cousin to a Postal Service track, and I mean that in the best possible way. In Otto, Welsh has found a partner who’s brought out the quiet beauty of his disquieting ideas. On Impersonator, they make a truly potent team. If you’re still ignoring them because of that name, you’re doing yourself a grave disservice.
Impersonator is out now on Matador.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Daft Punk’s stunningly lush disco nostalgia trip Random Access Memories.
• The National’s heavy-hearted orchestral romp Trouble Will Find Me.
• The excellently vibed-out streetlight-streaked Itaians Do It Better compilation After Dark 2.
• French Montana’s major-label A-list rap-star move Excuse My French.
• Dirty Beaches’ intense, darkly sprawling double album Drifters/Love Is The Devil.
• Man Or Astro-Man?’s reunion effort Defcon 5…4…3…2…1.
• Club 8’s Scandinavian Italo shimmer Above The City.
• Japanter’s artily fuzzy Eat Like Lisa Act Like Bart.
• The reactivated Saturday Looks Good To Me’s big return One Kiss Ends It All.
• Laural Halo’s forbidding mutated-house EP Behind The Green Door.