Love and Death
The Minneapolis-based indie art rock group Cloud Cult has nothing in common with British hard rock veterans the Cult, aside from the similarity in names and the fact that both bands now have an album called Love in their respective discographies. Instead, Cloud Cult, which is led by Craig Minowa, does things a bit differently. For instance, during their live shows, Cloud Cult is apt to have painters make art throughout the performance, and those paintings are auctioned off at the end of the show. And the band’s own label, Earthology Records, is environmentally conscientious: Love’s packaging, in fact, is made from 100 percent post-consumer recycled paperboard, and the plastic CD tray is comprised of recycled plastic with at least 35 percent post-consumer materials. What’s more, the band is musically adventurous, moving from haunting violin melodies to brash, happy rave-ups complete with hand clapping and whoots. So, yeah, Ian Astbury doesn’t really compare to the sonic abandon, artistic ambition, and environmental do-goodness of Minowa’s group. There are just no lines you can draw between the two bands, save for the shared album title.
Which leads us to Cloud Cult’s Love, their ninth studio album. Musically, it moves between the twin polarities of two Canadian bands: the artiness of an Arcade Fire and the broad bedroom pop and collectiveness in spirit of a Broken Social Scene. And it starts out strong with a sense of immediacy. “You’re the Only Thing in Your Way” is a lush and gorgeous acoustic guitar ballad that is utterly captivating to hear. Then, “It’s Your Decision” moves things into more mournful territory with its careening violins, before turning into a raging indie rock number. “Complicated Creation” opens up solely with a chorus of vocals and background laughter before some nimbly guitars kick in. These three songs provide an inviting and sonically dense and diverse start to the record, and it’s a flaw that the pace cannot be quite so sustained throughout the remaining 10 songs, as the material tends to get a touch on the grungier, sludgy side. Imagine Nine Inch Nails if they wrote indie rock instead of bracing, industrial metal.
There’s another thing that drags Love down a bit and this is something I really want to tiptoe around, because it could be a rather delicate subject and I don’t want to seem churlish in the least in bringing up this one criticism. Minowa’s infant son died suddenly in February, 2002, and, more than a decade on, this is a subject that creeps into the artist’s work and casts a pall upon it. There’s a short song fragment here called “Catharsis” that opens up with the sound of a little boy singing before the band melodramatically kicks in. And “It’s Your Decision” boasts the fiery line: “Check in, check in on your emotion / Are you an angry one or a father?” There are other references to this death and the still-lingering sense of healing peppered throughout the album as well; you can essentially listen to these songs and play a game of what you might think is a reference point to this personal tragedy, and read between the lines and conduct your own psychoanalysis on the state of the artist’s wellbeing. Being childless in my somewhat advanced age, I cannot relate to the loss of one’s progeny, though I can certainly emphasize and understand how gravely horrific such an event must be. And I suppose it’s something that one never exactly “gets over”—it is bound to haunt one continuously until they, too, put their foot in the grave. However, this broaching of subject matter gets depressing to listen to over the long haul, especially when you consider the fact that a clutch of these songs tend to be buoyant and celebratory. In the end, it becomes difficult to hear someone working through their own personal demons. I’m not saying that this is a subject that should be avoided altogether, though it should be treated with a deft touch. Love, then, sometimes comes across as a slight on the heavy-handed side, which is a harsh thing to point out to be sure. Minowa is still hurting and alternating between hope and anger, and Love—ironically, given the title—is proof of that.
Overall, Love, with its shifts in musical styles, keeps listeners on their toes and keeps things interesting. On the other hand, such detours can also slightly get in the way of maintaining any sense of consistency, and one gets to a point where the differences are tossed into the mix like a salad without much logic to the sequencing, and things become repetitive. In fact, ninth song “Meet Me Where You’re Going”, a kind of Crosby, Stills and Nash number, sounds virtually identical to the aforementioned opening cut. That makes Love a mixed success.
Still, there’s a lot to admire here and, taking the songs individually rather than as a whole, there’s some really catchy songs, even when they’re on the sombre and brittle side. As the cover art of a broken heart being stitched together illustrates, this is a statement on one man’s mental state, and there’s the palpable sense of the universal: everyone’s looking for their own form of desire, especially after traumatic events that all shake us from time to time. And while it can get a smidge overbearing, this is a brave and powerful statement insofar as album-length collections go. Whether or not you want to go along for the ride will all depend on how much sorrow you can take, but Love is ultimately a healing record. Let’s just hope for the sake of the primary artist in the band that this long player allows him to now move on and dwell on the future and all of its possibilities rather than the starkness and bleak shadings of what may have alas come before. Love is a palate-clearing exercise, and as the final song acknowledges, “The Show Starts Now”.
Here’s hoping Minowa finds his way through his art, having summoned the courage to lay himself emotionally bare and raw. Something I don’t think Ian Astbury would do either, in retrospect.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times. Thanks everyone.