Indie-electronic duo Majical Cloudz’s new album “Are You Alone?” opens in Cloudz’s characteristic minimalist style, with quiet but resonant vocals, piano and some well-placed horns and synths on the opening track, “Disappeared.” Majical Cloudz often employs relatively few elements at a time in its skeletal indie ballads, but each element feels crucial, perfectly executed and oriented in the context of the whole album.
“Are You Alone?” is not an album to melt your face off (for that, I recommend the death metal/shoegaze outfit Deafheaven’s new release “New Bermuda”), nor is it an album for any kind of dancing that’s not swaying (I refer you to Neon Indian’s “VEGA INTL. Night School,” out this Friday). Majical Cloudz is music for quiet contemplation, for thinking and feeling deeply and for biking back to your dorm in the middle of the night after that demoralizing study session in the library.
That being said, this album is not background music. Though it ventures into several categories of music — minimal, ambient electronica, etc. — which are invariably pegged as “study” music, it is not to be ignored. If you intently listen to acts such as Majical Cloudz, acts which are susceptible to the artistic purgatory of one of Spotify’s myriad “Chill Music for Studying” playlists, you’ll find depth beneath the ambiance. What gives Majical Cloudz’s music this depth — what keeps it from being merely “nice” or “pretty” — is a sense of urgency that permeates the tranquil tones.
The unifying element that holds this sound together is Devon Welsh’s earnest baritone and his simple, emotional delivery. His voice is one of immense gravity, underpinned by piano and synth throughout this searching record. Simply put, Majical Cloudz’s music — like many other artists who have experimented with ambient, philosophical music such as Radiohead and The National (both artists who have undoubtedly influenced Majical Cloudz) — has character.
Indeed, Majical Cloudz isn’t shy about its influences. Stylistically, it takes cues from bands like The National, Depeche Mode, Radiohead, etc. In fact, it directly references Radiohead’s landmark album “Kid A,” referring to the iconic opening lines of “Motion Picture Soundtrack” (“Red wine and sleeping pills…Cheap sex and bad films.”) in the title track “Are You Alone?” This reference may seem out of place without context, but the somber nature of Majical Cloudz’s lyrical allusion is not an outlier on its melancholic new record.
Devon Welsh, presumably the narrator on this album, is not doing great. He’s wrestling with shame (“Can I dress up in your clothes and be somebody new?” on “Control”), denial (“You say it’s stupid to be upset / You smoke another cigarette” on “Easier Said Than Done”) and death (“And if suddenly I die / I hope they will say / That he was obsessed, and it was okay” on one of the album’s finest tracks: “Downtown”).
“Downtown” is an example, however, of an important clarification: This album not a merely a “gloomy” album. Yes, it is tinged with melancholy throughout, but to label it as merely “gloomy” is too simple.
“Downtown” is a song about love — perhaps not healthy love — but love nonetheless. Welsh sings, “Nothing you say / Will ever be wrong / ‘Cause it just feels good being in your arms.” Sure, it’s denial, but it’s a testament to the power and beauty of living in the moment. Welsh sings, “Is it really this fun when you’re on my mind? / Is it really this cool to be in your life?” At first it may seem discordant to phrase love as a question, but when Welsh asks it, it rings true: love and doubt go hand in hand.
“Downtown” is a song about how love and doubt, happiness and melancholy, are inextricably connected, about how sometimes love is obsession, and maybe sometimes that’s “okay.” No, Majical Cloudz’s new record is not “study music” — it’s much more.
Contact Tyler Dunston at tdunston ‘at’ stanford.edu.