The Return of the Album | Cloud Cult’s “Light Chasers”

Has there ever been an artist that shared such intimate details of a difficult emotional journey in a clear and consistent manner?

Minnesota band Cloud Cult has been making great albums for a decade. Last year they capped off a powerful multi-album cycle with Light Chasers, at a time when albums are supposed to be an endangered species.
In 2009, Sufjan Stevens announced he was ditching his “50 states” project (one concept album per state) after completing albums for just two states (Michigan and Illinois). In an interview to experimental music magazine Signal to Noise he said, “I definitely feel like the album no longer has any real bearing anymore.” Interesting hypothesis, though hard to accept when in 2010 Stevens came out with an album about a schizophrenic artist, Royal Robertson (The Age of Adz). Whether joking or lacking in self-awareness, Stevens unintentionally hit on an artistic truth: Albums will never go away. Creative types will always be compelled to carry out an ambitious idea for their “art.”
Look to the many “Best of 2010” lists for examples of releases filled with songs that work beautifully as singles, but even more powerfully in the context of the album. For example, LCD Soundsystem’s “Drunk Girls” is sort of annoying on its own, but as the third song on This Is Happening, it makes sense. After listening to 2010 releases by Arcade Fire (The Suburbs), Janelle Monae (ArchAndroid), Kanye West (My Beautiful Dark Fantasy),Joanna Newsom (Have One on Me) or Titus Andronicus (The Monitor), I don’t see how the album can be considered irrelevant.
My favorite album of 2010 is Cloud Cult’s Light Chasers. It is an ambitious concept album filled with lyrically inspiring and passionate meditations on birth, life, death and dealing with it. The album simmers from quiet introspection into a celebratory, anthemic climax filled with electronic and organic rhythms, strings, horns, guitars and group singing. Think uber-positive Arcade Fire.
That positive outlook is a tricky thing in music—or any art form, for that matter—due to the fine line between straightforward celebration and total schmaltz. Cloud Cult wants me to “travel safely” (from “You’ll Be Bright”) and they believe “There Is Still Energy in Us” (the title and chorus of the album’s seven-minute closer). Any anger they express is generally self directed, as in “Room of the People in Your Head,” though it does shift briefly to their naysayers in “Forces of the Unseen,” but they just view it as “just fuel, for me, to prove this, yeah, you’ll see.”
While I lean toward that self-help, up-with-people, everything-is-gonna-work-out cheese, I do have my limits. Like a single that shines on it own but radiates in the context of an album, full appreciation of Light Chasers requires a wider lens to examine its dark underbelly. Through that examination you will find that, for this band, the album is very much a viable medium, and has been for the past decade. Over the course of six albums, Craig Minowa, the band’s lead singer/songwriter, takes the listener on an emotional journey from one of the darkest places imaginable (grieving over the sudden death of his two-year-old son and the breakup of his marriage) to one of acceptance and joyful, and responsible living.
During that six-album journey, he rails against right-wing politics, preaches (and practices) a respect for nature and sustainability, reunites with his wife (who is a backup singer/onstage painter for the band), and ultimately celebrates the birth of his second child while articulating his wishes for that child’s future. Light Chasers puts an exclamation point on a very real and tragic storyline, while simultaneously laying the groundwork for future work. This album stands alone as a solid release, but in the context of the rest of their work, I believe that Cloud Cult has earned the right to be part of the conversation as one of the greatest bands ever. Ever. EVER.
The Case for Cloud Cult
Before you dismiss my hyperbolic statement, allow me to present my case.
I believe musical expression to be too varied and subjective to claim one band as being “the greatest.” Still, there are musicians that are universally accepted as the “greats,” regardless of personal taste. These are the innovators, sometimes underappreciated in their own time, who bring us the whole package lyrically, visually and musically. Folks like The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Led Zepplin, the Rolling Stones, James Brown, The Clash and Talking Heads are just some of those in the pantheon.
What current musicians will be part of this group? Jack White is the first name that comes to mind; that man is a music machine. Depending on your musical leanings, you could make the case for The Flaming Lips, Wilco or Beck, among others.
Like Cloud Cult, for example. And just who is Cloud Cult?
Cloud Cult, with six to eight band members (depending on the day), is the brainchild of Minowa. Even so, they are a band, not solo project. Their live show—with onstage painters, instrumental musical chairs, and cathartic anthems sung by the whole band—is an experience. There is a collective spirit that runs through everything this band does, literally and figuratively.
Check out the band-produced feature-length documentary No One Said It Was Easy. Like everything associated with this band, it is heart-wrenchingly inspiring, and occasionally uncomfortable.
Long story short: In 1999, Minowa and his wife Connie founded a nonprofit environmental organization called Earthology and established a musical branch called Earthology Records. True, they are not the only band with their own label, yet the independent, DIY aspect to this band cannot be overstated. They drive around in a solar-powered bus and load their own equipment. In their early years, they used recycled CD jewel cases (that they washed by hand) to package their CDs. That is commitment.
In 2000, Minowa and his wife had a baby. In the two years that followed, their time was spent raising him and getting Earthology/Earthology Records up and running while living and working on their fully functioning farm in the boonies outside of Minneapolis.
Suddenly, in 2002, their son died from a rare virus, the grief causing the couple to separate. Minowa holed up on his farm, writing music to deal with the grief (their website says over 100 songs were written during this period). In 2003, They Live on the Sun is released. This album is musically schizophrenic, which perfectly matches the unsettlingly raw and poignant lyrical content. Songs shift from electronic to acoustic, dance rock to punk to ballad, illustrating a person’s journey through one of humanity’s greatest tragedies: a parent outliving their child.
In order to qualify as one of the greats, an artist has to do more than unpack their emotional baggage into one album. After They Live on the Sun, five albums followed documenting the emotional journey of a person struggling to overcome the death of a loved one. Each album, either by design or by accident, contains songs that musically and lyrically illustrate the stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance). Also, each album is an Album.
The Album Cycle
Here is a quick breakdown of the album cycle:
They Live on the Sun (2003) | This is an audio document, lyrically and musically, of a breakdown. The first half of the album, with the electro-punk of songs like “Estupido” and “Turtle Shell,” is the most raw and abrasive of Cloud Cult’s catalog. The second half of the disc begins the straightforward and unsettling processing of his son’s death with “Took You for Granted,” featuring samples of his son playing in their home studio (a heartbreaking technique that is employed several more times). The most tragic line is from the acoustic, slightly-out-of-tune piano ballad “Sleeping Days, Part II”: “Good morning, baby, why are you still sleeping?”
Aurora Bouralis (2004) | The entirety of the musical palette is used, with samples and electronic beats alongside acoustic instrumentation. Songs such as “Breakfast With My Shadow” and “As Long as You’re Happy” feel like the work of one guy, but the manic grief of the previous album, though clearly present in tracks “Grappling Hook/Northern Lights” and “Beautiful Boy” (which is followed by their most hopeful song up to that point, “I Guess This Dream Is for Me”), is harder to find. Humor and political satire are in the mix now, with sound collages “Princess Bride” (a collection of quotes from the movie of the same name) and “State of the Union” (which chops up and reforms Bush speeches to make him sound like an evil genius).
Advice From the Happy Hippo (2005) | With 25 tracks, this album fully realizes the musical ideas of the previous albums. Here are the “hits” that gave Cloud Cult wider attention, including the dance-y anthem “Happy Hippo,” the sunny pop “Lucky Today” (which was used for an insurance commercial), the angry political rant “Moving to Canada,” and the lullaby “Transistor Radio.” Songs such “What Comes at the End” or “That Man Jumped out the Window” have an epic feel that can only come from a band rather than an individual. It is no surprise that, during the recording of this album, Minowa and his wife get back together. Direct references to their son’s passing are absent here, though his presence is felt throughout on songs like “Rockwell” and “Start New.”
Meaning of 8 (2007) | Their most polished album at this point was intended to celebrate what would be the eighth birthday of their son (“Your 8th Birthday” features a chorus with their son’s name repeated with increasing intensity). A line from “2x2x2” seems to sum up this album lyrically: “Shape the pain into something great/ disintegrate and reintegrate.” Feelings of hope and encouragement sit beside the feelings of grief and despair in songs like “Dance for the Dead,” “Take Your Medicine,” “Please Remain Calm” and “Thanks.” A similarity to the Arcade Fire with their bombastic anthems becomes more evident.
Feel Good Ghosts (2008) | When this album first came out, it seemed more like outtakes from The Meaning of 8 rather than an album on its own. After relistening to Light Chasers, its importance as the glue between Meaning of 8 and Light Chasers is clear. This album continues the move away from grief and into acceptance. The line, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired” from “Hurricane and Fire Survival Guide” says it all. Album closer “Love You All,” with its beautiful and innovative use of the vocoder, seems to close out their tragic years with gracious thanks to all those who have supported them.
Light Chasers (2010) | With no gaps of silence in between songs, this album perfectly articulates everything the Minowas and their friends have learned over the years. The direct mention of their experiences are absent, though knowledge of their journey gives extra weight to certain lines throughout the album. Hear it in the album’s opener “Unexplainable Stories” (“We have traveled through unexplainable stories”), or on “Dawn” (“I have worries but I’m not going crazy.”) “You Were Born” is the sweetest wish to a newborn I have ever heard. Truly, they are preaching here, and they have earned the right. Check out the tribal chant of “Blessings (Invocation #2)” or the pep talk of “You’ll Be Bright” and “Forces of the Unseen.” After I listen to these songs, I truly feel like I can take on the world.
I don’t think that Cloud Cult is a perfect band by any means. Like all great artists, they take chances. Sometimes, when those chances are taken, they fall flat (for example, Meaning of 8’s “Song for the Deaf Girl” and “Alien Christ,” or Feel Good Ghosts’ “The Story of the Grandson of Jesus”). As mentioned earlier, some may find them to be overly preachy, melodramatic or schmaltzy.
However, has there ever been an artist that shared such intimate details of a difficult emotional journey in a clear and consistent manner? 2010 finds another album getting a great deal of attention for sharing intimate details of a difficult journey. It is frustrating to me that Kanye West’s recent release receives so much positive attention while Cloud Cult is ignored. Don’t get me wrong; My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is a complex and exciting album that deserves praise. In fact, Light Chasers and Twisted Fantasy are thematically similar. Both albums communicate that, even though life is hard and no one is perfect, with a strong desire to succeed, you will. Plus, they are both without question more than just a collection of singles: They are albums. Even so, when I hear about how brave West is for sharing his feelings of self-doubt and embarrassment for being a schmuck who doesn’t know how to keep his mouth shut, I get a little annoyed. That bravery seems trivial when compared to the people in Cloud Cult who have to collectively and publicly accept the death of a child every time they play live. I’m not trying to say that they are better than West; I just want them part of the conversation. | Tony Van Zeyl

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