Much of the discourse surrounding Impersonator, the latest album from Montreal duo Majical Cloudz, has centered on the band’s unshakeable performances. I can personally attest to the intensity of the live Majical Cloudz experience, as I was able to attend a performance by the band last December. At the start of the show, singer Devon Welsh instructed the entire audience to sit down on the ground. He then proceeded to stand in the middle of the seated crowd, towering above his spectators as he sang. The effect was stunning; much of the audience (myself included) gazed up at Welsh in an astonished, nearly reverent silence during the band’s set.
Many of the songs that I first heard that night now appear on Impersonator. On the album, it’s often difficult to distinguish between one song and another; this isn’t as much of an affront against the band as it is an observation of the stylistic consistency and formulaic compositional structures that are at play here. Nearly every track on the album is built around a short loop — produced by Matthew Otto, Welsh’s partner in the Majical Cloudz project — that is repeated ad infinitum with only slight variations and alterations.
Harmonically, the loops are quite static, repeating the same cycles of chords over and over again. Texturally, however, the music itself is gorgeous, built from soft synthesizer tones, subtle orchestral ornamentation, and muted, distant percussion; at times, I almost find myself wishing that Welsh’s vocals won’t even appear; the musical accompaniment is simply that euphonious, that beautiful (see: the strange, reversed sound effects that begin “I Do Sing For You;” the quiet, propulsive arpeggiation that forms the backbone for “Childhood’s End;” the woozy, undulating vocal samples of the album’s title track).
Despite the obvious care that went into composing the subtleties and nuances of the musical accompaniments, in the end that is truly all that these loops are: accompaniments. Majical Cloudz is, above all else, a showcase for the voice of Devon Welsh. Indeed, Otto’s quiet, repetitious production rarely ever emerges from the background, while Welsh’s booming croon remains the focal point of nearly the entire album. His is an engaging, powerful voice. Although it sometimes fails to land directly on pitch, it’s always emotive and commanding.
However, Welsh’s vocals are sometimes so explicitly emotional that they threaten to veer into affectation; depending on how one approaches this music, the singer’s dramatic wailing (for a specific example, listen to the last few minutes of “Silver Rings”) can come across as either enormously poignant or completely over-the-top, even self-parodical. From his manner of deliver to the album’s biting lyrical content (in March, Majical Cloudz tweeted that the tragic youth of poet John Berryman — marked by the suicide of his father — can provide an access point into the lyrics of “Childhood’s End”), everything about this record seems meant to appeal to the audience’s pathos, meant to prompt deep, existential ruminations.
As mentioned before, witnessing Majical Cloudz’s impressive live performance allowed me to access the layers of emotion that are inherent in these songs. When I’m listening to this album alone, however, I find it much more difficult to engage with the music on that level. To be clear, I do find it somewhat problematic to consider a recorded document such as Impersonator vis-à-vis a band’s live performances; the two are, in certain essential ways, distinct, autonomous spheres, and they should be considered thusly. With that being said, I’m simply not sure that the laid-bare emotional assault of Majical Cloudz makes for as compelling of a private listening experience.
In the end, though, Welsh sounds so utterly engaged at every waking moment that it’s difficult not to be drawn into the music of Impersonator. While I do believe that more variation — both in emotional tone and in musical structure — could have lent this album greater lasting power, there are certainly many moments of arresting beauty and clarity to be found here. This isn’t an album that I foresee myself returning to very often, but under the right set of circumstances — such as the live performance that I attended last December — these are songs that contain the potential to deliver an unforgettable, emotionally cathartic experience.