Everybody has gray days, the sort of days where things just seem leaden and dulled. There might be a reason. There might not. These aren’t the worst days, not the awful days where (at least in personal experience) music choices typically consist of either the stuff that’ll let you wallow in the perception of the world as abyss or the stuff aimed at completely rejecting the darkness. Sometimes those gray days stretch on, longer and longer, stacking up far longer than you’d like. With Are You Alone?, Devon Welsh and Majical Cloudz find a way to exist within that gray, to thrive in it, to acknowledge the mortality and the chaos and the gray, and reach out a hand.
On their 2013 debut, Impersonator, Welsh and Matthew Otto solidified their approach: minimalist arrangements and songwriting that welcomes the listener into an intimate emotional experience. From the follow-up’s title and cover alone, it’s clear that those elements haven’t changed; in fact, they’ve been honed. There’s the question, addressed to you and asking about connection, pressed in black onto a stark background. The content doesn’t disappoint, either.
Part of Welsh’s success in connecting through such grayscale instrumentation and dramatic lyrics is the fact that he’s aware of the performative aspect of music — the performative aspect of life itself. In delivering the real language of life in his large, soulful tones, Welsh’s sometimes clumsy struggles to connect are endearing and laudable. That’s even more true of the flashes of “music” language that he incorporates, the direct quotes and stereotypical language rendered similarly. While his voice reaches expressive highs and lows, it rarely stretches or flexes, the rounded tone simply rising and falling to fit the melody.
The album’s title track inverts indie rock legends Radiohead in an attempt to combat loneliness, but also connects in the shared experience of that loneliness. Welsh addresses the use of “red wine and sleeping pills,” “cheap sex and sad films” (a la “Motion Picture Soundtrack”), calling out to anyone that’ll listen: “Are you alone?” This isn’t a hypothetical question for Welsh. In asking the question, he’s really trying to make the connection, to combat loneliness for himself and the listener. “What’s the point of a sad, sad song?” he asks. “Do you hear me or not at all?” The interpolation continues on the majestic “Downtown”, echoing the many downtowns of pop music as someplace where people are, where things happen. He also closes the song repeating, “I’m going crazy/ Crazy for you,” another incessant trope of pop music. But Welsh’s twist on it all accepts the darkness that is necessary to acknowledge the light, that there’s some real crazy in the “crazy for you”: “And if suddenly I die/ I hope they will say/ That he was obsessed and it was okay.”
On “Control”, he analyzes the potential we have to enact new roles in life’s plot, to change. “Can I try to be you?/ Can I dress up in your clothes and be somebody new?” he asks, though only two songs later, on “Heavy”, he insists, “You’ve got to learn to love me/ ‘Cause I am what I am.” There may be stillness and sincerity in the music, but there’s also clearly a lot buzzing around in his head. There’s an attempt to posture and perform, but that too is incredibly serious. As the album closes, Welsh avows his friendship till he dies, but the final verse suggests that even that fate can be avoided: “Like a long ending/ In a film I have seen/ We will ride up that hill, put a tear in their eyes/ I remember how it ends, we survive/ And the audience sighs.” We’re all performing for someone else, there’s always someone watching, but there’s no doubt that he’s also incredibly serious. Riding up the hill is reality even if it’s not.
Welsh’s voice carries the tones of someone who knows all the emotional ground he’s covering. He has the near-deadpan of David Byrne, that sarcasm that allows you to smile at the painful reality we all live in — though that never becomes cloying, instead just enriching the honesty of the connectivity underneath it. “Silver Car Crash”, much like The Smiths’ “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out”, is a darling love song about how nice it would be to die with a beloved in a vehicular accident. The Northern Lights tones, flinty synth squeals, and puffs of bass leave Welsh front and center, nothing but sincerity in his voice despite the seeming surreality of the desire to “kiss inside a car that’s crashing.”
Like the title track, “If You’re Lonely” addresses the need for connection head-on, Welsh’s description of his growth from the end of a relationship to a point where he was ready for another one told like a therapist session or a journal entry, no thought of needing to guard or frame, just delivering the reality to help the audience. So, once he’s unburdened himself of his history so directly and simply, the direct, simple advice he offers gains a sweetness, a concern: “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.”
The patterns, pace, and synth tones don’t vary all that much throughout the album, though Otto crafts the slow-building cloud fronts in a way that buttresses Welsh’s themes. “Downtown” throws up halos of light around the questions Welsh asks himself, bewildered by how good things are when he’s with the song’s subject. The piano ripples like waves under his melancholy repetitions of “So Blue” and the seeming inescapability of sadness, and a distant breeze of saxophone provides tragic, romantic curtaining to opener “Disappeared”.
Are You Alone?, as its title suggests, is an incredibly personal experience, one that benefits from conversing with Welsh as much as he is with you. At first, the last word in the title might seem like the one being emphasized — the idea of loneliness hanging like a crushing weight. But, after listening to the beautifully gray album, it’s the first word that carries the weight. Are you really alone when there are “sad, sad songs” like these?
Essential Tracks: “Are You Alone?”, “Downtown”, and “Control”