Album Review: Majical Cloudz – Impersonator

[Matador; 2013]

In a field used to haze and obfuscation Montreal’s Majical Cloudz mix frontman Devon Welsh’s vocals well in front of the music. The group’s focus, on their debut LP, Impersonator, is bare emotion and the duo’s sparse, semi-ambient electronic landscapes serve as a canvas for Welsh’s anguished inner dialogs about death, loss, and love. The music is exceedingly introverted, Welsh’s lyrics conforming to anxiety’s inward dance of indecision and contradiction. On the record’s most devastating track, “Bugs Don’t Buzz,” Welsh sings the most memorable line of the album: “The cheesiest songs all end with a smile / This won’t end with a smile,” before following it a couple verses later with “The happiest songs all end with a smile / This might end with a smile.”

On early standout, “This Is Magic” the duo build a stark, nightmare atmosphere haunted with inner demons with lines like “I feel like a kid / I see some monster standing over my crib” and “I hear a murderer walk / I hear his footsteps talk through the floorboards in my house.” The track is almost nothing but a steady kick drum and a thick organ melody with some minor synth textures building quietly out of sight and Welsh’s voice interrupting a clenched silence hovering above. The track feels like a physical place–one where Welsh is trapped facing his own mortality, real enough that you could climb those stairs and look down into that crib.

An aura of mystery and ambiguity hangs over Impersonator. The emotions and resulting thoughts are always present and felt, but their cause isn’t always clear. “Childhood’s End” opens with the lines “Someone died / Gunshot, right outside / Your father, he’s dead.” Who’s father? Who is the narrator? The track ends with the repeated phrase, “Won’t someone come home for me?” Album centerpiece “Turns Turns Turns” opens with “I did something, feel I / Can’t tell if it’s wrong.” It never tells us what the something is, but the refrain of “I don’t know” and the stain of regret on the words is all that seems to matter. “Silver Rings” repeats the words “Silver rings / Stay with me” over some compressed guitar plucks and a layer of starry synths, but the actual conflict never becomes clear. What are the rings? Is the song about a married couple? A hollow feeling of desperation pervades the track.

Then there’s “Bugs Don’t Buzz.” The track moves like a two-chord funeral dirge, piano keys played in marching repetition. The album’s most powerful moment arrives as some quaking bass synths slam into place like a meteor impact. Then they disappear again. “Bugs don’t buzz when their time approaches / We’ll be just like the roaches / my love,” Welsh sings before that bass synth locks into place. The line carries the weight of the world and the track acquires an almost apocalyptic severity. But the the song’s most resounding words come with a blessed moment of romanticism at the end of a string of tearful fatalism: “If life could be forever one instant / Would it be the moment you met me?”

Impersonator is an album that sees life as fleeting–that death and the end of things is an ever present reality. The obvious conclusion is to hold tight to the people and things in life that mean something, but that’s too neat of a sentiment for Majical Cloudz. On closer, “The Notebook” Walsh asks “How much do I have to love to grow / Will I be alone forever?” The answers are hinted at in the previous nine tracks.