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Majical Cloudz, ‘Impersonator’ – Album Review

“The cheesiest songs all end with a smile,” sings Devon Welsh near the end of ‘Impersonator,’ Majical Cloudz’s first album for Matador Records. Though the listener has, by this time, had nine songs to get a sense that no smile is coming while Welsh and collaborator Matthew Otto are in charge, he still clarifies by tacking “This won’t end with a smile” onto the previous line with the effect of a slamming door.

By the time ‘Bugs Don’t Buzz’ appears, Majical Cloudz don’t have to worry about being taken seriously, though it’s not a stretch to see today’s culture mocking just about anything. And ‘Impersonator’ seems particularly at risk because of Welsh’s vulnerability.

Majical Cloudz do little musically to mask or divert attention from the words sung. Their music is deceptively complex, in that each song comes across a stripped down, spare and spacious, but the dance-music roots of the two musicians are firmly implanted in the music’s implied absences. ‘Mister’ opens with a revolving, muffled beat that is uptempo and club-ready, except that it sounds like it’s being smothered by a pillow, and it never expands beyond the initial bars’ reveal. It’s like an introduction becoming the entirety of a song.

Similarly, ‘Childhood’s End’ has a pulsing keyboard pattern that, in the hands of another artist, would certainly explode into maximalist walls of sound. But it never does; instead, it provides steady bedding for Welsh’s direct and disturbing words about a father being shot to death and the relationship that frayed as a result. His use of “father” and “brother” in this song, and a few other incidental references to male figures at later moments on the album, are the only times gender comes into play, and that makes these lines stand out, suggesting some significance that’s not entirely clear. Still, whether the album receives a queer reading, or whether people see the speaker as feminine or masculine, has more to do with the listener than it does the group. The result is one of the most ambiguous records in recent memory, and also one of the most universally affecting.

For all the precision that comes in the ambient backing, and for all the well-placed swells and dips, it’s the lyrics that makes ‘Impersonator’ special. The music’s role is mainly a to support confessional revelations about fear, loneliness, death and generally being human.

On ‘Notebook,’ the weight of the album hangs fully exposed, with questions like “How much do I have to love to grow?” and “Will I be alone forever?” being asked without irony or implied answers. Who, specifically, is asking these questions and to whom they’re addressing them is not nearly as important as the fact that they make the listener ask the same things. And these, among the dozens of other profoundly straightforward thoughts on ‘Impersonator,’ are not easy or fun topics, but they are vital. They may not make you happy, but they make you feel alive.

Majical Cloudz execute detail to perfection, particularly Welsh’s highly engaging vocal inflections. For as directly as it draws you in, ‘Impersonator’ does many things that go beyond the sounds you hear. You might find yourself wanting to know more about the creators and looking up the lyrics to feed your curiosity. And that might be a tell-tale sign of a great album: It still has something to offer when the music goes silent.

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