“I told you that I’d been writing/This song is proof that I’m trying,” sings Devon Welsh on “Impersonator,” the title track off his new album. The key word in the lyric is “trying.” Through his work as part of Majical Cloudz, a Montreal-based synth-pop project with Matthe Otto, Welsh has chronicled his own anxieties about the creative process and more often than not the words he associates with it—lies, illusions, magic—are rooted in deception. His work is often self-referential and even meta-textual, but it’s rarely concerned with seeming clever, witty or cute. Welsh sings in a deep, expressive baritone—think Leonard Cohen, think Matt Berninger, think a sad owl clutching a dead mouse in its mouth—and the arrangements that surround him float around him with a stark, urgent simplicity that contradicts the band’s fanciful name. If he’s hiding behind something, it’s a simple white mask. Nothing ornate. “I’m a liar,” he sings in the album’s opening moments over a bed of processed vocal samples. “I say I make music.”
He does make music, and he’s been doing it for a while now. Welsh and Otto released the Turns Turns Turns EP last year through the small Montreal record label and artist community Arbutus, the home to cosmopolitan, experimental pop acts like Grimes, Blue Hawaii and Doldrums. These artists each have a busy, kinetic quality that Welsh’s patient, austere music lacks and it makes sense that the singer has made the leap to one of the larger independent labels, Matador, to release his full-length. For all its icy synth beds, crackling percussive touches and chilly piano chords, Impersonator doesn’t feel like the work of particular community, scene or collective. It’s surprising that two people even collaborated on these songs; they feel like the work of a singular mind working in total isolation.
With his shaved head, paired-down wardrobe and occasionally violent lyrics, Welsh can at first seem like a loner, a lost drifter character out of a Gus Van Sant movie. The brutal elegance of songs like “This Is Magic” and “Childhood’s End” recall the barren, downtrodden ballads of Bill Callahan or Nick Cave, but Welsh’s voice has a touch of the theatrical to it, a hint of that Antony Hegarty magic that turns even the darkest moments into opportunities for powerful, radical empathy. Walsh has a tendency to repeat phrases over and over, putting a different emphasis on each word, letting syllables roll off the tongue like he’s trying out lines in front of a mirror. “Loving you/I’m loving you/I’m loving you/I want to/I would love to,” he cries out on “I Do Sing For You,” turning the heartfelt declaration into a throaty death rattle.
This is a remarkably self-assured album, precise in its themes, particular in its language and modest in its ambitions. Over 38 minutes Welsh circles around the same core ideas, pawing at them like an animal ready to pounce. For some listeners the minimal, unfussy arrangements and the lack of clear, discernible hooks will make it difficult to take the plunge into sadness that Welsh wants to take you on. “Turns Turns Turns” (no relation to the Byrds track) offers the closest thing to an ethereal pop pleasure, with its swooping vocal samples and its tribal drums, but it never crosses into the art-damaged R&B territory of something like Autre Ne Veut or How To Dress Well. On the other end of the spectrum songs like “Bugs Don’t Buzz” and “Silver Rings” are almost unbearably sad. “I don’t think about dying alone,” Welsh moans at one point. He doesn’t sound confident. He doesn’t sound sure.
For all his emphasis on loneliness, many of these songs are directed at people: friends, family members, lovers. The names are never stated but when you’re dealing with the type of seismic emotions that Welsh conjures here, there’s really no need to muddy things with specifics. The details that do emerge—the “gunshot right outside” on “Childhood’s End” or “fingers throwing dice” on “Illusion”—are evocative but mysterious. Only towards the album’s end do details begin to seep out. “See you in your hospital gown/Never let surroundings bring you down,” Welsh sings. “You and me won’t be here forever/Love will conquer these feelings.” Impersonator isn’t about the danger of pretending; it’s about the necessity of it, the way deceptions, impersonations and songs can create hope.