It’s a radical form of vulnerability; it’s a balm for toxic masculinity.
Nico allegedly broke down while recording “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” less because of the radiating warmth of the song, more due to Lou Reed being a tremendous dick. Bullying usually isn’t the best way to get a legendarily emotive song across, but Reed was effective. His grouchiness helped create the most empathetic rock song of its era, precisely because Nico showed some wounds while reaching out. So it goes for all pop that touches those in a time of need. Sympathy is a poor substitute for truly knowing another’s pain.
Devon Welsh might have introduced himself by bellowing “See how I’m faking my side of it?/ I’m a liar I say I make music,” but even then we knew it wasn’t the truth. Welsh and Matt Otto’s breakout as Majical Cloudz was uncomfortably explicit dealing with imposter syndrome, mind-gnawing anxiety and grappling with the void. Over two short albums, the duo opened for Lorde, gained modest acclaim and curated a rabid cult following, entranced with the unnerving nakedness of their front man.
Impersonator was a series of monologues, Welsh battling with his ego and insecurities. Are You Alone? evolved into conversations, his extreme, almost worrying, passion bleeding into late night talks over red wine and walks through cities with doomed loves. Dream Songs, Welsh’s first solo album, is now the ramifications of it all, parsing through old lovers and friends, asking what went wrong and right in a search not for simple closure, but for a true desire to understand and improve. It’s a radical form of vulnerability; it’s a balm for toxic masculinity.
It wouldn’t be possible if Welsh’s voice (lyrical and pipe-wise) hadn’t evolved. Going from droning baritone to starlight tenor is an easy trick, but damn if it doesn’t work every time. “Chances” first seems like a “Rocky Mountain High” ballad and maybe the first time Welsh will misstep. But the swarming chorus notes that join him as his voice rises dispels all doubts of cheap pop thrills. “Visions” is liable to cause heart attacks with its sudden burst of melodic voice. A stark, nearly indie rock, loop leads Welsh on calmly until he builds up emotional steam and a warm pool of strings and keys join his upward trajectory. He’ll rip your heart out then tape it back together all in one verse.
It’s easy enough to make comparisons with another bald baritone in Michael Stipe. Stipe might have hidden his wounds in gibberish while Welsh shines a blindingly harsh light on his failures, but both of them have incredible control of the contours of their voices. It’s less about the exact notes they hit, but the way the expand and contract showing pride or shyness with deft dynamic contrast. “Let’s go swimming,” sings Welsh on “Summer’s End,” nearly fading away into ether. The rest of the song is a painful retelling of nostalgia now turned sour and Welsh is sturdy, powerful in his stride, until he has that simple request. He suddenly returns to earth, a kid again and just wanting to forget in the cool wash of waves.
“This town is a vampire” he later croons, proving he was a pop-punkster the whole time. But “Vampires” is a nuanced and bleak look back at youth in dead end cities. The lyrics nearly tripping over themselves as Welsh skips ahead. “Finish the liquor we’ll chase with the moonlight,” is a wonderful turn of phrase, hinting at wistful adrenaline seeking mixing with newly found fears.
Welsh also dips into the mythology around his old group. Opener “By the Daylight” obliquely mentions their first head-turner “Bugs Don’t Buzz” and “Dreams Have Pushed You Around” even cops that single’s melody. A few mentions of “perfect love” carry over as well. “I am changin’” he moans on “I’ll Be Your Ladder,” a connector to “Will you let me change?” from Are You Alone? “I’ll Be Your Ladder,” in its misty composition, is a benchmark for Welsh’s emotional commitment. His music has often centered on fading relationships from growing up and mutations far beyond our control. But here he cements that he will change, for the better, for himself and will still be able to help. Not “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” but he’ll be the one to prop you upward and onward.