For me, love and music have always been linked. It’s something I’ve written about before, but no relationship I’ve ever had, romantic or otherwise, has escaped the same fate of being rolled together with music, be it that of Arcade Fire, Radiohead, or even Neutral Milk Hotel. My wife has always said that In The Aeroplane Over The Sea was the album she fell in love with me to. This isn’t about Jeff Mangum, though; this is about Craig Minowa. Just a few short days into our relationship, I put on Cloud Cult’s second album, Who Killed Puck? As far as album openers go, “Where It Starts” is likely one of my favorites, due in part to its rat-a-tat drums, but especially because it’s one of the most desperately lonely songs I’ve ever heard, to the point where Minowa seems consumed by it: “I found god on a Wednesday afternoon, drinking boxed wine and wishing you would call me / I found god in the middle of the woods, spitting at the stars and making love to a tree / I found god when I quit smoking cigarettes, I found god in a bag of weed / I found god in the back of my head: Too scared to even talk to you, but dreaming you would marry me.” His voice is fearful and nervous, but in a way that makes you feel like he’s trying to defeat his loneliness by scaring it away.
That morning was the first time I ever listened to Cloud Cult, and I felt connected to that song in a lot of ways, and to a lot of things about that band. I love how they have always felt like the only real-live hippies left in music (for every thousand copies of their superb Feel Good Ghosts that got sold, they planted ten trees), and they made albums called Advice from the Happy Hippopotamus and Feel Good Ghosts (Tea Partying Through Tornadoes). But most of all, I feel connected to the fact that, no matter the tempest swelling around him, it has always felt like Craig Minowa was always making music like he did with The Shade Project: in a closet, alone. “Where It Starts never stops feeling like that, and even my wife’s favorite Cloud Cult song, “May Your Hearts Stay Strong,” feels exactly like that, even if it’s a song about the truest love you’ll ever come across: “It’s the day in the place where she first said ‘I love you’ / spread his ashes with the breath of the last kiss that she blew.” In a lot of ways, Cloud Cult are one of the best-kept secrets in the realm of bands for lovers.
This is why it’s fitting that, nine albums in, they’ve decided to entitle their album, rather succinctly, Love. From the get-go, it feels like it always does: just Minowa, singing to himself. There’s a matter-of-factness to the way “You’re the Only Thing In Your Way” flows along: “Drive baby drive, until your trouble’s gone / Run, baby, run, until it all goes numb.” Breathe, keep breathing / I can’t do this alone. Everything else slowly joins him here: first the piano, then the sighing cello, and then a small orchestra – yet somehow, even when the kickdrum comes in, you still feel a strange loneliness. This holds on through the third track, “Complicated Creation,” in which Minowa seeks council from the moon itself: “Yes, you know that I’m a happy man, but something in me is burning.” And what does the moon say back? “I’ll give you some advice: You gotta live a little lighter, You gotta breathe a little deeper You gotta suck it, suck it in. There’s your medication.” It may be the grand plan for the record, but from this moment on, there’s a change in the record: Cloud Cult starts to feel less like a one-man band, and more like a full-on band, just like they’ve always been. Here, the title Love becomes very fitting.
The interesting thing is that, somehow, Love is the least over-the-top Cloud Cult have ever sounded. They have always been a great band, but there has always been something that you might find slightly hard to connect with, even if you could never put a finger on it. However, here, they sound almost painfully sure of themselves, both emotionally and sonically. The best example of this is the slinky-bass groove of “Sleepwalker,” which plods along with an eletropop pulse that almost sounds like latter-day Modest Mouse. But then, it kicks into overdrive, and it makes it half-impossible to stay still: “Where is your kid side? Where is your joyfulness? Where is your empathy? Fast asleep.” It feels like a clarion call, and with each observation Minowa makes about how you might be living your life, everything starts to build and build, until he’s hollering over a wave of guitar fuzz. This is the bizarre sound of a band’s unrest settling, where every good idea they ever had gets thrown into every other good idea, and everything sticks. And then, for me, I start to wonder: this band has always been a beautiful mess. Does it suit them to lose all of that childlike whimsy for a record, and make a balls-to-the-wall awesome record? Absolutely.
At the close of the record, “The Show Starts Now,” we go back to the beginning, and Minowa feels somewhat alone again, when he intones one of the most effortless lyrics thus far: “They say we’re made of chaos, I say we’re made of love.” Even as a chorus of voices swells up, it’s hard not to feel like he’s a single soul against the world, even when he delivers another simple lesson: “You’re no good to the living if you’re too afraid to bleed.” On this song, it stops being one person, and starts being a force of nature, and it’s really quite impressive to hear. There’s not a jaded bone in the bodies of anyone in Cloud Cult, and they all make music that wears that fact proudly on its sleeve. It’s a wonder that it has taken them so long to make a record that sounds quite as unassuming, while still being so sure of itself; while no one said it would be easy, it’s always great to watch a band make it truly look easy.