“Are you alone?” — That’s quite the loaded question for an album title. It’s many things at once — an expression of sympathy, a pick up line, a vaguely menacing taunt — and on their third album, Canadian electronic pop duo Majical Cloudz manage to conjure a sound evocative of all three distinct sentiments. Like their contemporaries and associates the xx and the National, Devon Welsh and Matthew Otto have predominantly one mode — slow, moody atmospherics — and they do it very well. It doesn’t make for an enthrallingly varied listening experience, but for those listeners in the throes of heartbreak and simply romantic ennui, Are You Alone? is all the sympathy they will need.
Here’s the thing about dirges — they can be very easy to mock and very tiresome to listen to, but at certain moments, their leaden sentimentality and plodding pace can be exactly what you need, a musical EKG beating slowly to the march of your own despair. So when I say that Are You Alone? is a collection comprised entirely of dirges, twelve of them to be exact, I don’t mean that in a dismissive or disparaging way. With its themes of romantic isolation and crumbling relationships, Are You Alone? speaks directly to the dark night of the romantic soul — ideal to be queued up on Spotify at precise and very necessary moments.
The album floats by in a hazy, dreamlike state, opening with the pristine piano valedictory of “Disappeared.” Rest assured, it won’t grow much more animated after that point — all of the album’s tracks never rise above the slower end of the midtempo spectrum. The melodies rest primarily on a few notes repeated for four minutes for maximum emphasis. The title track and single “Downtown” pick up the pace a tad with burbling beats underneath the shimmering mist. Ultimately, though, much of the musical tension arises from Devon Welsh’s voice, a plaintive drone lost somewhere between the timbre of Michael Stipe and the finesse of Colin Meloy. The stark clarity of Welsh’s vocals offers a striking contrast to the zen-instrumentation of the record, proving all the more unsettling and yet deeply relaxing at the same time.
The album offers its loveliest triumvirate with the stretch spanning “So Blue”, “Heavy”, and “Silver Car Crash”. The mournful keyboard of “So Blue” provides the perfect backdrop as Welsh consoles his lover, only to turn the self-help sentiments onto himself. “Heavy” offers a first-person perspective of a relationship crumbling in slow motion, as Welsh drones “you’ve gotta learn to love me” that makes compromise sound like a death sentence. He makes the disaster metaphor quite literal in “Silver Car Crash”, continuing the timeless tradition of car-crashes-as-romantic-sublimation established by the Smiths’ “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” and Pearl Jam’s cover of “Last Kiss”. “I want to kiss you, inside a car that’s crashing, and we will both die laughing” – it’s remarkably morbid and yet when Welsh follows that with “I am so hopelessly for you,” it’s quite affecting and sweet.
Are You Alone? can be a challenging listening experience, even as its trance-like state seems to discourage active listening. Its tone is simply so unrelentingly uniform that a full rotation requires a little bit of psyching up from the listener. Beneath its glistening sheen, there seems to be a more unpredictable emotion lurking beneath, a tempestuous expression waiting to show itself. Yet, Majical Cloudz remain in complete control, letting the most wounded sentiments go unsaid. As a result, the album is ultimately almost too polished, too clean for all of the messy emotions hiding underneath. There are so many moments when the music seems on the verge of exploding, but never does, and that’s ultimately to the album’s detriment. Sure, a peaceful surface of water is a beautiful thing to witness. But it’s hard not to indulge that chaotic desire that every once in a while, a ripple would rupture its tranquility. B MINUS