Cloud Cult are at their best when they approach the world with wonder, which is amplified by their acceptance of transitory existence and the struggles inherent to it.
Death illuminates the fragility of life, a common theme in contemplative songwriting and one that has defined Craig Minowa’s music since the sudden, unexplained death of his two-year-old son in 2002. To cope with his grief, the singer-songwriter and Cloud Cult frontman immersed himself in his craft, and during the aftermath of personal tragedy he wrote over 100 songs. Many of those made it onto the experimental indie rock band’s early-‘00s albums, which garnered critical acclaim and heavy rotation on college radio stations even as Minowa shunned overtures from major record labels in favor of self-producing. The creative control he maintained through releasing albums under his non-profit Earthology Records imprint not only applied to the music itself, but to the entire process, as the environmentally-conscious Minowa and his wife Connie—a visual artist known for creating entire paintings onstage during Cloud Cult live shows—produced music on their geothermally-powered organic farm in rural Minnesota, the physical copies of records constructed from only recycled materials.
For a sustainability-obsessed band whose large roster tours in a biodiesel-fueled van in promotion of songs about the preciousness of existence, Cloud Cult differs from their cult-like contemporaries, never exuding the wide-eyed ebullience of the Polyphonic Spree or the hippy-dippy platitudes of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes. Though they may be a metaphysically-minded band with a ridiculous celestial-worshiping moniker, their music is surprisingly grounded, counterbalancing their wistful yearning in the pursuit of answers to the big questions with a healthy dose of cynicism. Those elements combine sublimely on the band’s sixth album, The Meaning of 8.
Rather than referencing numerology, the album’s thematic focus on the number eight takes on multiple forms, most wrenchingly with “Your 8th Birthday.” In a tribute to his departed son, Minowa’s voice soars as he invokes the name Kaiden, whom he proclaims the “king of the jungle gym” who could “make traffic jams feels like parades.” In the shuffling, somber “Thanks,” Minowa reminisces about his own youthful days and how the “smell of burning pumpkin” takes him back to the “days of grass-stained knees and trick-or-treat face,” while he hopes he’s still able to find as innocent a place when he’s 88. Elsewhere, on the instrumentally dense “2x2x2,” Minowa sings about two closed circles coming together and uniting to form the number eight—not coincidentally also resembling the infinity symbol—while singing of shaping “the pain into something great,” which he illustrates with the imagery of baking bread during a monsoon and growing Christmas trees from tombs.
While childhood imagery and broader expressions of hope amid darkness abound on The Meaning of 8, Minowa’s songwriting threads the needle between cosmological spiritualism and sharp criticism of organized religion. On the kinetic stomp of “Please Remain Calm,” Minowa laments the fact that “It’s hard to tell the difference of a prophet from a crackpot.” For an intensely earnest band that’s rarely ironic, Cloud Cult indulges in a little sarcasm on “A Good God,” as Minowa describes seeing God for a moment as “so effing precious,” while conflating Jesus with He-Man and dressing “the devil in a thong.” The band chides our consumer culture on “Alien Christ,” weaving a tale of a mysterious crash from the heavens being overrun by media sensationalists and exploitative merchants “selling everything from religious relics to plastic UFOs.”
But Cloud Cult are at their best when they approach the world with wonder, which is amplified by their acceptance of transitory existence and the struggles inherent to it. In “Chemicals Collide,” Minowa admits that it’s difficult to tell illusion from reality at times, and that we too often get caught up in the past or look too eagerly toward the future at the expense of present moment mindfulness—but no matter our mental state, life still offers those fleeting moments of unparalleled beauty when we manage to make a connection with someone. Meanwhile, “Chain Reaction” deals with interconnectedness of all things with hints of karmic repercussions, and over the music box melody of “Take Your Medicine” Minowa regrets a quarter-century spent stuffing skeletons in closets and beating himself up, acknowledging that if we don’t take life’s hardships in stride we’re bound to take them “right between the eyes.”
Coming on the heels of the critically beloved Advice of the Happy Hippopotamus, Cloud Cult’s The Meaning of 8 didn’t display the same level of quirk as that album, but instead fused playfulness with the profound in a way that makes this effort the band’s definitive album. Continuing to self-release his band’s records, Minowa hasn’t dramatically increased Cloud Cult’s visibility over the years, as they remain an indie band that often flies under the radar. But in following his own vision, Minowa has turned grief and loss into creative rebirth, the moving parts of which have never come together quite as powerfully as on The Meaning of 8.