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When Lorde asked Majical Cloudz to accompany her on her 2014 tour, it at first seemed like an improbable turn for the small, gloomy Montreal band. But the pairing made sense. Majical Cloudz– comprised of Devon Welsh on vocals and Matthew Otto on synths and programming–come off as Lorde’s older, moodier brother, just as disenfranchised with pop’s modern trappings, but taking a different route to express the dissatisfaction.
The experience also raised questions about what the next Majical Cloudz album might sound like. (The duo scrapped most of an EP–reportedly a more hi-fi approach–after the tour with Lorde). But anyone hoping for a poppier follow up to their 2013 album, Impersonator, will be disappointed. If anything, the duo has dialed back any overt pop-leaning tendencies. The new album, Are You Alone, is even more melancholic than its predecessor.
Welsh loops around and around the same questions, coming up with answers and then just as quickly discarding them. On “Control” he sings “Will you let me change?/ I want to, but I think you want me the same.” But then, three tracks later, on “Heavy”, he has decided he’s fine with where he’s at, singing “You gotta learn to love me/ ‘Cause I am what I am.” Of course, he quickly doubles back, telling us two songs later, on “Change” that he wants “to believe in everything you say/ But I am already feeling changed.”
If the album has a theme, it is this ambivalence. Welsh goes back and forth on just about everything, wrestling with love, growth and the purpose of writing songs about any of it. He lets us know on the first song, “Disappeared”, that he will not be arriving at any easy answers, singing, “I am going back to knowing nothing now.”
On the other side of the project, Otto has further receded into the ethereal background of the songs, which is a minor disappointment. Impersonator was not a propulsive album, but somehow things have slowed down even further on Are You Alone. There is also less of an effort made to commingle with Welsh’s voice. Most of the instrumentation here is happy to drift along in the background, which can make the album feel longer and drearier than it really is. But there are exceptions. “Silver Car Crash”, with its bleats of a futuristic angelic choir, provides a nice change of pace, and “Are You Alone” adds some forward momentum with a bubbling bass line. But Majical Cloudz has never exactly been about shaking things up. “Is this going too slow?” Welsh asks on “Control.” “You think so, but we won’t speed it up, no no/ ‘Cause I like it when the song goes slow.”
In the end, for all the handwringing, the begging, and the confusion, these two know exactly what they are up to, and they seem just fine with the formula they’ve created. The last we hear from Welsh, he tells us, “I remember how it ends. We survive and the audience sighs.”