Emmy the Great is a musician and writer from London, now living in New York. Her third album, Second Love, is released in March on Bella Union. You can follow her on Twitter.
(photo credit: Alex Lake)
Like my fellow European, Hamlet, I am moody and prone to bouts of weariness, and so it is that I have of late become bored by the Internet. Once my well-meaning friend, the Internet now seems too desperate for my attention, too eager to fetch photos of Justin Bieber’s penis or to harass me with its galleries of worst celebrity haircuts even as I am hovering over photos of real-world atrocities in its morning headlines.
Which is a long-winded way of saying, I wish I hadn’t Googled Majical Cloudz before I listened to Are You Alone?, as if that could help me form an opinion, rather than simply using my ears to listen to the music. In a half-hearted skim of several pages of information, I put together a sloppy mental file of context which, as the opening song “Disappeared” floated into my life on distant piano chords, I suddenly felt ashamed of. It was the same sort of shame as when I was listening to Father John Misty’s “The Memo” on Soundcloud and he sang, “Do you usually listen to music like this?”
Majical Cloudz pose a question, too, early on in their album. On “Control,” Devon Welsh sings, “Is this going too slow?” and then, answering himself, “You think so, but we won’t speed it up, no, no…” “Control,” ostensibly about the power of a slow dance, serves as a setting of intention for the album, and as a warning that the pace won’t pick up. For the next forty minutes, there will be nothing but beds of understated, calming sounds, with the lightest of percussion, built around vocal melodies so simple you wonder if they are the same melody over and over. Is it bold? Yes. Is it boring? Yes, but as Welsh sings on “Heavy,” “You’re going to have to learn to love me.”
I once watched the New Age artist Iasos attempt to clear an audience’s chakras with certain healing frequencies. Listening to Are You Alone?, I wondered if some of those frequencies were in use. The album’s sonic landscape, so tastefully and sparingly curated, feels cleansing. As the songs repeat their simple messages of youth and love, the sense of being clean accumulates until you begin to feel like you’re at a really weird spa. Minimal swashes of white noise lap like waves throughout the album, bringing an effect of distant waterfalls, like the ones in those kitsch holographic landscapes in restaurant toilets, and on album highlight “Easier Said Than Done,” something — a sample or perhaps a synth — mimics birdsong, invoking a sense of innocence and peace all the more potent for its artificiality.
In an age of over-compressed radio edits, Are You Alone? demands your attention as a whole piece of music, and is rare for being an album that grows in effect right until the end. One of its most gripping and dramatic songs comes penultimately, charting Welsh’s concern for a friend or lover who plays for the spotlight as though they are in the “Game Show” of the title. Once the controlled distortion of “Game Show” is gone, we hear “Call on Me,” in which the only percussion is a slapping sound in place of a snare. This sound serves as a reset button that returns us to the pleasant mixture of sonic control and friendly emotion which has accompanied us so far. As the album comes to a close, the song reminds us that, at the moment that Welsh is singing, “we are alive.”
Are You Alone? is not perfect. The lyrics have a tendency towards existential gloom that suggests I’m not the only person feeling Hamlet-y, and partners of the band members should be seriously worried about “Silver Car Crash.” But what this record did for me is a precious thing: it took me on a journey to a simpler time. My mind, weighted down with all that stuff it knows now, had forgotten how it once lay on my bed and listened to the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin,” all seven minutes and thirteen seconds of it, feeling a little bored but mesmerised, or that it once swallowed a Neutral Milk Hotel album like an eleven-course meal just because someone mentioned that they were good. While listening to this record, I remembered when I diligently sat by my CD player and listened to the Microphones as though I would be tested later. I thought about the night I fell asleep listening to Beach House and, lucid-dreaming, met all my past lives.
I’m not finished with the Internet, and I don’t think it’s a simplistically negative force on music, but it’s time we asked if the way we consume “content” is affecting the way we connect with musicians in meaningful ways. After listening to this album, I can still compulsively click on K-pop videos for sport, or enjoy music while I confirm on WebMD that sneezing is not a symptom of herpes, but I have now been reminded that I have a choice: Majical Cloudz, a weird spa with a unique but refreshing selection of treatments.