There are love songs and there are torch songs. Love songs are dispatches from the throes of infatuation, all big struts and perfect smirks. Torch songs, on the other hand, come after the break-up, stubbornly, messily vowing to never ever let go. Almost every pop song fits somewhere on this spectrum, from Dusty Springfield to Drake, Nina Simone to Taylor Swift. Most artists have found inspiration at countless points along this line; the dynamics of love necessitate emotional progress. But the Canadian duo Majical Cloudz have set up camp on the low end, and don’t seem to be in a hurry to go anywhere else. We’re taught to believe that all broken hearts eventually heal, but Majical Cloudz have spent their career building a counterargument: that we’re doomed to repeat the feeling of being broken over and over again. And with the release of their newest album, Are You Alone? (out Friday on Matador), it’s hard to argue against it.
A pact to never ever let go
On their last album, 2013’s Impersonator, Majical Cloudz began to explore the impact of minimalism on maximal emotion, something that's at the core of Are You Alone?. With just a keyboard (Matthew Otto) and a singer (Devon Welsh), Majical Cloudz manage to stretch sounds to strange, uncomfortable places. Welsh’s voice is an unpracticed baritone, a desperate tool chipping through hard rock, a whisper coming from someone who can’t really whisper. Otto’s arrangements are stark and minimal. When there is percussion, it almost always comes from Otto’s keys, like small fists pounding against a wind chime.
Majical Cloudz’s instrumental minimalism is useful buffer for the lyrics, which carry most of the album’s weight: needy, uncompromising lines come one after the other with an unrelenting force that could pin you down to the sidewalk. On "Disappeared," Welsh sounds idealistic, willing to take any form of contact from an old love: "All I want is for you to talk to me the way you used to do." On "So Blue," a song with a drum kick like a heartbeat, he sings, "I wanted to say I need you, but I felt so in the way." And the pinnacle of it all, the lyric that could be the theme of Majical Cloudz, comes in "Downtown": "If ever I die, I hope that they say that he was obsessed and it was okay."
For Welsh, when love starts to fade (an unavoidable eventuality), it becomes an obsession. And without obsession, Majical Cloudz would be a different band. Obsession allows for desperation unhindered by shame or embarrassment — when Welsh sings, "Can I try to be you? Can I dress up in your clothes and be somebody new?" on "Control," it sounds like a reasonable request. Welsh isn’t consumed by love itself, he’s consumed by the potential of it. Love can be an escape because, for once, it feels so much nicer to obsess over someone who’s not you.
Maybe Majical Cloudz are doing nothing new here; torch songs have existed for as long as humans have been singing. But love songs endure because they are timeless; a song recorded in 2015 can give us the same feeling as one recorded 60 years ago. And Are You Alone? is indebted to albums that have come before it. Like Fiona Apple’s 2012 album The Idler Wheel, Are You Alone?'s rawest moments come in unexpected fits. Like The Mountain Goats’ Get Lonely, the album finds poeticism in the worst parts of itself. Like Joni Mitchell’s Blue, it sounds delicate, but pulses with an undercurrent of darkness. And yet Are You Alone? does sound new. Its slenderness stands in direct opposition to Young Thug’s crowded, unedited verses or Tame Impala’s ever-expanding reverb. In a year where music seems to be less and less about the artists themselves, Majical Cloudz are making music that gets as personal as possible.
Misery is just the driving force of love
Sometimes, the weight of misery in music tends to overwhelm everything, but on Are You Alone? misery is just the driving force of love. The ultimate unrequited love song, Bonnie Raitt’s 1990 hit "I Can’t Make You Love Me," was inspired by a man charged in court after getting drunk and shooting at his girlfriend’s car. When the judge asked him what he’d learned, he reportedly said, "You can’t make a woman love you if she don’t." Which is probably true, but that doesn’t mean you can’t keep singing about it.