If the Beach Boys’ lost Smile album, which Brian Wilson recently performed live, was a “teenage symphony to God”, then Cloud Cult‘s Aurora Borealis is a grown-up symphony to the departed soul of a two-year-old child.
Cloud Cult mastermind Craig Minowa’s life is the stuff of Greek tragedy or the book of Job. An environmental activist, he used to have it all: a home and organic farm outside Sandstone, Minnesota; a wife, his high school sweetheart, Connie; and an infant son, Kaidin. Then, on 23 February 2002, Kaidin fell asleep to the somber strains of Mozart’s “Requiem” and, for reasons that remain unexplained medically, never awoke. Connie discovered the lifeless body the next morning. The couple’s shared pain would become too much for their marriage to withstand, and they eventually divorced.
If Minowa existed in the plays of Sophocles, surely he’d have gouged his own eyes out by now. Yet in his all-consuming grief, somehow the environmentalist/songwriter finally found a way to channel his dual ambitions. His organic farm became an environmentally friendly home recording studio (“powered by geothermal heating and cooling”, the liner notes helpfully inform us) and the offices for Earthology Records, billed as the world’s only nonprofit record label. His torrent of emotions became a flood of recordings — more than 100 songs, Minowa has said — some of which would end up on Cloud Cult’s third album, last year’s They Live on the Sun.
Aurora Borealis, like its predecessor, uses solar imagery to express the musician’s deep love for his son — and fervent belief that through the sun and its effects on the Aurora Borealis, they remain connected (more on this later). “In seeing the northern lights, I really feel his presence,” Minowa told the Duluth News Tribune. Nevertheless, where They Live on the Sun focused on our local ball of light and heat and sunspots, the new release is a more-direct communique to Kaidin: a message of love, tempered with anguish, transmitted through hope.
Like Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Aurora Borealis is the rare album that has the musical merit to match its great making-of story. Confident, mature, honest, inventive, eclectic, and unremittingly catchy: Minowa’s fourth release deserves all the adjectives befitting a classic album.
While many of 2004’s most-buzzed-about indie-rock albums are merely exercises in a trendy genre (from the endless garage-rock revival to the unremarkable post-post-punk of Franz Ferdinand), Cloud Cult displays the breadth of an iconic band to whom Franz Ferdinand is inexplicably compared, Blur. The two opening tracks introduce us to a driving, electronic-accented indie-rock and Minowa’s vocals, a strangled mix of Doug Martsch and Conor Oberst with — on these songs, at least — Julian Casablancas-style distortion. But the rest of the album’s 14 tracks touch on the atmospheric, the avant-garde, acoustic ballads, audio sample-based collage, and even politics.
“As Long As You’re Happy”, lamenting a failed relationship, is the perfect pop song. Acoustic guitar-based “I Guess This Dream Is For Me” could be the work of a more-optimistic Elliott Smith, augmented by a lovely orchestral flourish. As well as a master songsmith, Minowa is an innovator, as the abstract yet melodic meanderings of “My Secret Life With Amily” and “Grappling Hook/Northern Lights” establish. Kaidin even makes an eerie cameo in the latter track, via playful recordings made while he was alive.
Kaidin’s poignant giggling reminds us that although Aurora Borealis no doubt was conceived in a period of abject misery, the album, like love itself, is not just solemn or weighty. Observe: How does this earth-saving, CD-case recycling genius introduce his theme of true love? Why, through a song called “Princess Bride,” of course, sampling audio from the film of the same name. There’s something sublime in the way Minowa takes the minister’s unforgettably hilarious words, “Mawwiage is what bwings us togevah”… and then harmonizes with them.
For even bigger laughs, every self-respecting liberal should listen to “State of the Union”, which splices together Bushisms in the manner of Black Grape’s “Get Higher”, which had Ronald Reagan saying, “Nancy and I are hooked on heroin.” In Minowa’s fun-with-sound-clips opus, President George W. Bush blithely announces, “Tonight I have a message for the people of Iraq: Go home and die.”
It would be easy to neglect the lyrics amidst all the other forces at work on this impressive release. But the truth is that Minowa’s words, just like his spacious soundscapes, both encapsulate his feelings of loss and transcend them to deliver a timeless homily on the strength of love. From “Chandeliers”: “I’m always dumbin’ up the smart things / And smartin’ up the good things / And knottin’ up my shoestrings / And messin’ up the good things / But did you see the stars last night? / Punctuation for a perfect poem.”
Aurora Borealis isn’t a perfect poem, but it’s one of the best aural artworks to see release this year. Since it’s on Minowa’s own label — a nonprofit one at that — it will likely take a year or two to seep into the consciousness of an indie-rock public awaiting the next NME-approved, corporatized indie-rock act (perhaps they will even hear it on one of AOL Music’s two — count ’em, two! — indie-rock channels).
But fans of sincere — and sincerely groundbreaking — indie rock will look to the North, and the sun. Minowa believes that because all carbon comes from stars, when the sun expands over the next few billion years, carbon-based life on Earth will be reunited with its origins, he will be reunited with Kaidin, and we will all go back to where we started. A beautiful notion. And Aurora Borealis is good enough to make me want to believe it.