In his excellent review of Majical Cloudz’ 2013 album Impersonator, Pitchfork’s Jayson Greene characterized singer Devon Welsh as the one guy at your party who’s dropped MDMA while everyone else is drinking socially: “Flushed, sweaty, intense, he stares everyone directly in the eyes… Ignoring everyone’s obvious discomfort, he presses on mercilessly: ‘Hey mister,’ he asks, locking eyes with you. ‘Don’t you want to be right here?'”
The metaphor worked a treat, and I’ve spent a couple of years thinking about exactly why that is. The key word here is “discomfort,” because there is something discomforting about Impersonator, and about Majical Cloudz in general. To go back to Greene’s observation for a moment, if there’s one thing that’s true about people who are on ecstasy, it’s that there’s absolutely nothing ironic about them. They’re completely, utterly sincere, and it’s that — as much as the fact that their eyes are rolling around in their heads and their pupils are the size of dinner plates — that makes us uncomfortable about them.
As a society, we’re not good with earnestness and sincerity. We’ve developed an entire playbook of ways to avoid serious questions and interactions, and being forced to abandon these and be earnest can be singularly disconcerting. (See, for instance, the Key and Peele sketch where the former grabs the latter and forces him to express an actual opinion instead of demurring with a pithy phrase or ironic eyebrow raise, the result being that Peele flees in tears.)
Impersonator was a wonderful record, and a strange one, and both these things were true because of Welsh’s singular lyrical personality — and that personality was expressed in doing exactly what a large majority of people don’t want to do: articulating feelings in a completely affectless, unguarded manner. If there’s a single word that could be used to describe Impersonator, it’s “vulnerability.” (As he told Flavorwire on the album’s release, “I’m inspired by art that expresses something vulnerable. Vulnerable sentiments, vulnerable emotions… those are the things that come from surface-level engagement in everyday life, moments of vulnerability you have with another person are intimate moments when you sort of go past the surface of somebody and you see.”)
Are You Alone? continues this approach, but unlike Impersonator, it also starts to reveal the limitations of vulnerability as an approach to songwriting. Simple, plaintive lyrics are harder to pull off than it might appear: there’s a fine line between profundity and banality, and unlike its predecessor, this album flirts with and occasionally skips over that line. The difference, I think, is that Are You Alone? is more stocked with conventional love songs than Impersonator, and it’s in these songs that Welsh’s words occasionally descend into “dear diary”-dom. He’s one of those songwriters whose lyrics sound better in performance than they do on paper, but even so, it’s hard to redeem lines like, “When you’re in love it doesn’t hurt/ When you’re alone it gets much worse” or, “Is it really this fun when you’re on my mind?/ Is it really this cool to be in your life?”
That said, he’s still got a way with words, even when those words are just “I love you”: “Silver Car Crash” one-ups “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” by proclaiming, “I want to kiss you inside a car that’s crashing/ And we will both die laughing,” while the album’s title track lifts a couple of lines from Radiohead’s “Motion Picture Soundtrack” and sounds not unlike an early demo of that song (which is quite the compliment, if that’s not clear). “Call On Me” provides the album’s most beautiful moment, when Welsh marvels at how strange it is to be anything at all: “In the warm dream, I cannot believe/ In 1988 we were born, we survived/ At the moment I sing, we’re alive.”
The album’s at its best, though, when he’s addressing less conventional subject matter. “Control” deals with the power dynamics of relationships, which seem particularly vexed when you’re as prone to obsessive, unrestrained adoration as Welsh appears to be: “Would you control me?/ Would you lock me up and then never set me free?/ Would you?/ I am on my knees.” “If You’re Lonely” is a profoundly beautiful and moving meditation on solitude, and an example of how when everything clicks, Welsh’s delivery elevates lyrics that may seem mundane on paper into something transcendent: “If you’re lonely/ You don’t have to be all alone/ No one has to be that way/ No one has to be afraid of being loved.”
Perhaps the most telling lyric, though, is “Game Show,” in which Welsh uses the metaphor of one of TV’s earliest forms of reality programming to describe his subject’s life: “You show yourself to whoever’s watching/ …You make a show out of your feelings.” It’s hard not to think that he’s talking at least about as much about himself as he is about his unnamed subject: “You don’t know what you’re doing/ You don’t, you really don’t.” None of us do, really, but few of us are as ready to reveal that to the world as Devon Welsh is. It’s this that makes his art both uncomfortable and strikingly beautiful, so much so that it’s hard to imagine it being one of those things without the other.