“The cheesiest songs all end with a smile/ This won’t end with a smile.”
The first words from Majical Cloudz’s “Bugs Don’t Buzz” and the first words many heard from Devon Welsh. The Canadian singer emerged into the spotlight in tandem with bandmate Matthew Otto in 2013 with the confessional to an unnerving bent Impersonator.
“I didn’t know what the album was about,” admits Welsh over the phone. He’s just gotten done with catching up with a cousin and is in good, but ever pondering, spirits. Since his opening proclamation, Welsh made another Majical Cloudz album, went on to release his solo debut Dream Songs after the duo broke up and just announced his second record True Love. There’s a natural evolution from one to the next. The overall picture wasn’t clear to Welsh until recently; only with time could he examine it. Impersonator was inward, stark self-reflections. The follow up, Are You Alone? focused on conversations and questions. And Dream Songs?
“I was unhappy while writing it. And I thought it was about overcoming things. But really it’s abut escaping things.”
From the title down, Dream Songs sways into unreality. Nostalgia washing over the notes, leading to sepia-dusted recollections of swimming in rivers as the summer waned. Impersonator was Welsh “writing in communication with myself,” and, at the decade’s end, he’s opened to the larger world.
Dream Songs started from lyrics and demos on a guitar, but gained steam through a text. Austin Tufts, of fellow Canadian kooks Braids, asked Welsh “to run up the mountain in Montreal.” Welsh, who had started playing basketball at the local YMCA, invited Tufts along and the discussions that formed the bedrock of Dream Songs appeared as the two started to shoot hoops. The main change was the use of acoustic instruments, rather than the synth-laden sound of Majical Cloudz. Tufts and Welsh recorded with student musicians from McGill University, including a live session that produced the tense, devastating “Dreams Have Pushed You Around.”
That song, Welsh explained, was about “anything that’s a haunting, unachieved fantasy,” and that could be the thesis for darkest moments of Dream Songs. The dirge-like “Comedian” was partially based on Welsh reading Patrice O'Neal, a comedian who still preformed as his body broke down from diabetes. “Comedy is the salvation of suffering,” Welsh says, poking at the intwining nature of tragedy and humor. It’s not in a simple “well, if I couldn’t laugh I’d go crazy,” instead, Dream Songs explores how the motions of laughing and crying are reflections of each other. As another Canadian song-writer once said “laughin’ and cryin’ you know it’s the same release.”
Dream Songs is a remarkably empathetic album. Welsh has never shied away from revealing his fragile inner world. He describes Impersonator as “my emotional history,” and the vulnerability that has always been on display is occasionally uncomfortable, but a wonderful opposition to tough guy facades. It is a balm for toxic masculinity, proclaiming that the strongest of us are able to show our softer sides, even when it feels like death.
There’s also Welsh’s use of a meta-view of music. The history of pop is woven into his sound effortlessly, using touchstones to instantly bring images and memories to the forefront, making his stories more universal. Dream Songs’ first single, “I’ll Be Your Ladder,” was an evolution of The Velvet Underground’s “I’ll Be Your Mirror” one of the most empathetic rock songs ever, an ode to a friend in need of a hand, a hope and a reminder of promise. With “I’ll Be Your Ladder,” Welsh imagined “a ladder, ascending into heaven, there with someone else’s pure happiness.” The Smiths’ “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” and The Beatles’ “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” were both reference points on Are You Alone?, speaking to the connection a single song can have over a lifetime, stepping out of the studio and becoming its own being through the collective experiences of everyone listening.
And Welsh has seen his own music recast in front of him. On Majical Cloudz’s first headlining tour, he recalls playing in Minneapolis and seeing the crowd sing “every word” to Impersonator’s centerpiece “Childhood’s End.” The final song on Dream Songs is the meditative anthem “Take it Easy,” with Welsh singing to some higher power, searching for destiny, but also submitting to whatever fate might throw him. “I will surrender,” he begins. And he already has. His music, empathetic, vulnerable, hopeful, has been cast into the world, reshaped by the minds and voices of thousands, infusing his lyrics, his voice, his music with their own memories.