Why Manchester is the new creative epicentre of neo-soul and hip-hop
“I’m faking my side of it/ I’m a liar, I say I make music” – the first lines of the titular opener to Canadian duo Majical Cloudz’s ‘Impersonator’ has Devon Welsh come clean: is he yet, and indeed will he ever be, the artist he’s set himself out to become? Over a pair of wordless looped vocals that play tug of war, the couplet pinpoints the undefined, early stages in creative development that usually seep through early bedroom recordings or scratchy demos. While personal to a point where some might claim self-absorption, there’s universality also: many will relate to that experience of feeling a sudden stab in the gut as a dream or ambition looks to be slipping away. By the song’s eighth – and final – line, its candidness is stripped back about as many layers as it can go: “I told you that I’ve been writing/ This song is proof that I’m trying”.
Impersonator the track is a fleeting sketch, so brief it feels as ephemeral as a statement drawn in the sand, but its concern with performance and truth sets a marker for the compelling, complex songs assembled on ‘Impersonator’ the album. Frequently reversing back into childhood, elsewhere raising death and love with the starkest of lyrical turns, these themes are always served up with a confessional honesty. The deceptively insistent line “I don’t think about dying alone” in Silver Rings becomes more unsure as it is repeated around a gliding voice, and closer Notebook_’s baritone groan _“I don’t want to turn to the Bible” has added personal poignancy when considering the lasting creative impressions of Welsh’s experience of spending a period of his childhood living in a tight religious community in California.
Another element of the record’s personal and resonating nature is the touch of reverb often added to Devon’s voice; it’s a production detail adding expanse but maintaining intimacy, as if you’re stumbling in on him in a sound-check and are now privy to a private performance. Devon has spoken before of a vital developmental moment occurring for him after realising the values of “just being present on stage”, and the album’s naked effectiveness shows the significance of this realisation. This Is Magic looks back to bedtime anxieties of boogiemen close by, but shifts back temporally and roots us powerfully within the moment of performance: “If this song is the last thing I do I feel so good/ that I sang it”. Like the title track, I Do Sing For You hones in on the minute details of the creative craft as he insists to a lover that of course it is them he’s thinking of as his eyelids drop on stage mid-song; while the downcast, song of the week-worthy Bugs Don’t Buzz messes with what we expect from cheesy or cheery songs with real energy and playfulness.
For all the focus on voice and lyrics, it’s worth noting the precision of ‘Impersonator’‘s vivid instrumentation – credit for which must in part go to Matthew Otto, who joined Majical Cloudz’s live set-up early last year. Be it Mister’s restless tom-tom rolls or Illusion’s chimes that rise to the fore like unanswered questions, throughout it’s a colourful palette, adding tints to these songs in all the appropriate places. In some ways this makes Turns Turns Turns – itself something of a gateway between ‘Impersonator’ and Majical Cloudz’s formative works – stand out, with its drums and keyboards building around swirls of synthetic smoke. But even standing somewhat apart, Turns Turns Turns still sounds glorious – with those cavernous snares providing welcome weight following the airtight atmospherics of the album’s claustrophobic first half.
Birthed in the hipper-than-hip city of Montreal, Majical Cloudz’s development from ‘II’ to ‘Impersonator’ is all about honesty. While fellow Montrealians like Grimes and Doldrums ride the waves of the internet age by aiming to distil twenty-first century pop, Welsh has carved his own path by looking to his rural upbringing and complex childhood experiences, and closely considering his role as a performer. With an autumnal voice as sturdy as an old oak, he isn’t faking any part of it: these earthy, soulful songs demonstrate Devon Welsh shedding an outer skin to reach his true musical self.