There is nothing in the world like a great fall album. The fall album is a hard thing to define or quantify. You can mostly hear it for what it isn’t. Great summer albums are flush with joy and life and romance and the promise of new possibilities. They’re charged-up, and they have places to go. Fall albums aren’t that. A great winter album is bleak and contemplative and often laced with a sort of omnidirectional acid rage. It’s not a coincidence that black metal albums tend to sound amazing when you’re Christmas shopping in jammed clothing stores, with headphones on. (Seriously, try it this year. It’ll help you focus your discomfort.) Fall albums aren’t that, either. A great fall album doesn’t necessarily have to come out during the season, though that helps. It crosses genre lines. Bill Withers made great fall albums. So did Leonard Cohen — at least early on, before he moved on to winter albums. Belle And Sebastian made truly amazing fall music before they got all musical theater with it. OutKast’s Aquemini may be the best fall album of all time. Even a gleaming, bulletproff arena-pop album can be a fall album; I’d argue that Lorde’s Pure Heroine qualifies. It’s the sort of album that works in the exact moment when you start putting on warmer clothes — not because it’s cold enough that you need it quite yet, but because it feels good after months of summer. A fall album is about contemplation, about small comforts, about taking stock of your life and the world around you. These albums can be solitary, but they’re contentedly solitary. They can be disappointed with the world around them, but they’re not exactly angry. They play like sighs. And this is all a way-too-long way of saying that Majical Cloudz’ new one Are You Alone? is a beautiful little fall album, that it’s arriving at the exact right time.
Impersonator, the last Majical Cloudz album, came out in the late spring/early summer of 2013, but it was a fall album with winter shadings. The main focal point on that album was singer Devon Welsh’s thick, heavy, barrel-chested baritone. He didn’t so much sing words as intone them, and most of the words he intoned were dark. He was thinking about death, about his own insignificant place in the world, about feeling like a fraud at everything he did. So much of the music was about insecurity, and yet Welsh sounded absolutely secure himself, projecting a tough stillness and coming across like the sort of person who holds eye contact for unsettlingly long stretches of conversation. He’s very much the same person on Are You Alone?, but the album does different things in different ways. Musically, it’s just as stark as Impersonator, but the starkness works in different ways. This is still a two-person affair, with Welsh’s voice sharing space with Matthew Otto’s spare electronic hums and really nothing else. But the hums are warmer and softer this time around. They swell prettily, nodding toward melodies without ever committing to them. And Welsh is singing in a higher register than the one he used on Impersonator. That might not have been a great, decision, actually. Welsh’s baritone was so strong and singular that it immediately set the duo apart. When he’s singing in a conversational tenor, the way he is on Are You Alone?, his voice can drift off a bit. It doesn’t have the same impact. But it works better for what he’s singing about, since what he’s singing about is love.
“Silver Car Crash,” the first single from Are You Alone?, is sort of about death but mostly about love. In that song, Welsh imagines, Morrissey-style, the glory of dying, via automobile wreck, alongside the person he loves the most. He sings about this with a sort of fond, wry detachment, but there’s a lightness in his voice. In this scenario, love defeats death, or at least finds a way to coexist peacefully and happily with death. And when Welsh sings about self-doubt this time, he’s doing it by holding his own diminished self up alongside the self of someone he admires: “When everyone else goes to bed / I see you walking in my head / The way you moves seem so assured / I look again and I’m not sure.” The question isn’t Why am I so bad at this? It’s: Why are you so great at this? Elsewhere, he finds very strange and very real ways to profess his devotion: “Would you control me? / Would you lock me up and never set me free? / Would you? I am on my knees.” And even more affectingly, he sings about building the strength up within himself to profess that love: “I wanted to say I need you / But I felt so in the way of you / I’ll try not to be so blue.” Lyrically, my favorite song on the album is “If You’re Lonely,” a sort of narrative about teaching himself that he doesn’t have to be by himself all the time. In words so simple and direct that they feel strange, he sings about falling in love, losing love, and finally learning that he doesn’t have to be afraid of love. And when he sings the moral of the story, it’s like he’s throwing out a life raft to whoever might need it: “So if you’re lonely / You don’t have to be all alone / No one has to be that way / No one has to be afraid of being loved.”
Majical Cloudz were working on a new album last year before they got called in as unlikely openers on Lorde’s American arena tour. When that was over, they scrapped what they had and started anew, inspired by the vision of so many people so into what Lorde was doing. In hearing about that, you might think that they’d scale up their ambitions, projecting big thoughts and feelings toward the cheap seats in the arenas that, who knows, they could headline one day. But Are You Alone? isn’t like that. The music is still spare and haunted, and the sentiments are plainspoken and intimate to an almost unsettling degree. Owen Pallett was once set to contribute strings to the album, but if he did, they’re so subtle that I can’t hear them. (And anyway, Pallett’s name isn’t in any of the songwriting credits.) Both musically and lyrically, it feels like they worked hard to strip away anything that wasn’t absolutely necessary, any errant word or synth-whirr. And once again, they’ve made an album of unsettling force, one on which Walsh sounds like he’s singing directly at you, the listener. It’s just that this time, they’ve released it at the right time of year.
Are You Alone is out 10/16 on Matador.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Beach House’s don’t-call-it-a-surprise surprise Thank Your Lucky Stars.
• Deerhunter’s warm, comfortable Fading Frontier.
• Neon Indian’s sci-fi pop return VEGA INTL. Night School.
• Small Black’s prettily dazed Best Blues.
• Gun Outfit’s revved-up, blissed-out Dream All Over.
• Dan Friel’s euphorically noisy Life.
• Raury’s dazed, doofy, genre-free All We Need.
• Woozy’s rhythmically rich Blistered.
• Chris Walla’s post-Death Cab solo move Tape Loops.
• YACHT’s giddily modernist I Thought The Future Would Be Cooler.
• Here We Go Magic’s quirkily lush Be Small.
• !!!’s reliably twitchy dance-funker As If.
• Zombi’s creeping synth-blare Shape Shift.
• Lushes’ nervous, textured Service Industry.
• The Mantles’ compact, efficient indie rocker At Odds End.
• Peter Buck’s post-R.E.M. vinyl-only solo LP Warzone Earth.
• Jean-Michel Jarre’s favors-called-in collab-fest Electronica Part 1: The Time Machine.
• Wax Idols’ self-reliant punker American Tragic.
• Watain’s black metal murderblast Satanic Deathnoise From The Beyond.
• Alex Bleeker And The Freaks’ jammy, sprawling Country Agenda.
• Keep Shelly In Athens’ rebooted indie-popper Now I’m Ready.
• Promise Ring offshoot Maritime’s Magnetic Bodies/Maps of Bones.
• Thy Catafalque’s experimental prog-metaller Sgùrr.
• Computer Magic’s synthpop debut Davos.
• Christine And The Queens’ elegant, vulnerable self-titled album.
• Panopticon’s ambitious, folky black metaller Autumn Eternal.
• tUnE-yArDs side project Naytronix’s bass-driven Mister Divine.
• Lymbyc Systym’s meditative instrumental LP Split Stones.
• Spoon collaborators Sweet Spirit’s full-length debut Cokomo.
• Arcade Fire’s movie soundtrack The Reflektor Tapes.
• John Carpenter’s remix album Lost Themes Remixed.
• The Donovan tribute compilation Gazing With Tranquility.
• Annie’s Endless Vacation EP.
• Inventions’ Blanket Waves EP.
• Together PANGEA’s The Phage EP.
• Shakka’s The Lost Boys EP.
• Olga Bell’s Incitation EP.
• Decorations’ Girls EP.
• Hiccup’s self-titled EP.
• Wildhoney’s Your Face Sideways EP.
• Unalaska’s self-titled EP.
• Love Ssega’s Minds EP.