Soul-searching crew turns didactic
Label: Earthology Records
Release Date: 9/14/2010
Listening to Minneapolis septet Cloud Cult is kind of like watching Kabuki theatre: It’s bizarre, melodramatic and even gaudy at times, but nonetheless surprisingly moving. With a career spanning 15 years and nine albums, the group has honed a sound that is equally baroque and beat-based, sample-heavy and orchestral, and full of lyrical meanderings that toe the line between ingenious and terrible.
Frontman Craig Minowa’s personal history is largely inseparable from the band’s music. In 2002, his two-year-old son fell asleep one night and never woke up; Minowa and his wife, high-school sweethearts, separated in 2003, unable to cope with the grief. All of Cloud Cult’s albums, beginning with that year’s They Live on the Sun, have been haunted by this loss, which has proved to be both Minowa’s greatest strength and his biggest flaw.
At times, his sorrow-soaked tunes have sounded heavy-handed, nearly as exhausting and difficult to endure as agony itself. 2006’s Advice from the Happy Hippopotamus was bogged down in protracted musical ramblings; three tracks of utter silence were interspersed throughout, and Minowa noodled on his guitar for overlong interludes, as though he were pouring himself into his music-making to cope, and losing himself in the process.
But a few years later, after the Minowas had reunited and time had somewhat eased their grief, 2007’s The Meaning of 8 and 2008’s Feel Good Ghosts (Tea-Partying Through Tornadoes) scaled back the stream-of-consciousness and saw the group returning to its signature sound: a melodic tug-of-war between orchestral swells and pounding beats. Lyrically, the albums also soared once again, incorporating autobiographical material with light, well-placed strokes. “May Your Hearts Stay Strong” summed up the couple’s loss in one of the most haunting verses of the band’s career: “Check under the covers just to make sure he’s still sleeping there / Turn wedding gowns to angel clothes for the baby to wear.”
Last year, the couple gave birth to a son. Fittingly, Light Chasers looks forward instead of back: Minowa has dropped his role as confessional tunesmith and taken on the role of teacher and father, addressing most of the songs to “You.” The album is structured like a New Age Pilgrim’s Progress, with titles like “The Mission,” “The Departure,” “The Birth,” “The Battles” and “The Escape”; it tells the story of a pure soul coming down to planet Earth, outlining the many snares and pitfalls life will inevitably introduce. It’s an exhortation to, as Minowa intones, “stay focused on destination.”
He mostly seems to have eluded his demons, but even so, he’s pulled back into darkness on a few tracks. In “Room Full of People in Your Head,” a distorted voice proclaims, “We are experiencing interference.” As the tempo shifts between a pounding piano melody and a crashing, bass-drum groove, Minowa cries, “Part of me is the hangman, looking for a scapegoat / And part of me is the victim always crying, ‘Why you picking on me’ / Lock up the gun cabinet, or its gonna get messy.” Even Light Chasers’ most joyful songs have nothing on these anxiety-riddled tracks. This interplay between extremes has always been Cloud Cult’s strong suit; the snaking tempos and sudden rave-ups and ear-jarring bangs have been necessary to balance out the self-serious personal lyrics. Here, the band does well to incorporate tension and volume—you just wish for more of both.