Devon Welsh seems like a guy who would never think to answer a question as simple as “How are you?” with the sanitized deflections favored by most of polite society. That very notion runs counter to the confrontational honesty foregrounded in his work as one half of the minimal synth-pop duo Majical Cloudz, who disbanded in 2016 after two low-key but widely celebrated albums. “Why would you lie?” he asked on a track from the pair’s final offering Are You Alone?, as if even the most rote suppression were completely alien to his genetic makeup. It’s worth noting that same track’s title, “Easier Said Than Done,” strongly hinted at another of Welsh’s greatest attributes--an unerring, radical empathy.
Many of those same qualities remain front and center on Dream Songs, Welsh’s first solo outing since parting ways with Cloudz bandmate Matthew Otto, which might make it fairly obvious to cite the substitution of organic instrumentation for Otto’s synthesized loops and drum patterns as the most immediately noticeable difference; strings churn, pianos plink and fleet-footed guitar lines ring out bright and clean, while leaving enough space for Welsh to fill with his commanding yet sensitive baritone.
Still, there are more subtle variations to be found here, even as the overall impact of the music remains the same. Welsh is still unloading “every little thing that’s on my mind,” but, in several instances, those thoughts are directed at a more specific audience, instead of a vague and all-encompassing “you.” Also, per the album’s title, many of those thoughts have taken on a faintly aspirational hue in lieu of being preoccupied with some present condition. Evidence of both can be found on the slightly jazzy lilt of “Summer’s End” as Welsh imparts, “Father, we will never grow old / And a perfect love will always be yours.”
While many of his lyrics still carry the weight of a gut-wrenching, first person confession, he’s broadened his purview to tackle nothing less than the reasons for our very existence. On opening track “By the Daylight,” over a sprightly tempo and plucked violins reminiscent of Andrew Bird, he sings, “Things more powerful than you control the actions of your life.” Other songs take on an almost liturgical intensity and sense of repetition; on both “Chances” and “I’ll Be Your Ladder” Welsh stretches his vowels past the point of recognition toward some unseen horizon, rendering formal language totally irrelevant. Moments like this give Dream Songs an expansive, spiritual beauty uncharted on Welsh’s Majical Cloudz output and contain some of his most bold and gorgeous singing to date.
Occasionally, he stumbles: “Comedian” bears a circular structure that resembles other album highlights, but falls flat under a more restrained vocal approach. Welsh is used to operating within a spare framework, but for the most part, his work with Majical Cloudz boasted relatively compact melodies. Here, the increased abstraction only works when Welsh uses his considerably powerful voice like a bellows to blow things skyward; when he leans back, the effect can be static.
For many, however, that will be a moot point. The album creates and sustains a mood it will be easy to luxuriate in as autumn approaches and the sun begins its daily descent earlier and earlier in the day (and judging from the album’s late August release and multiple lyrical references to fall, that is hardly an accident). It’s also perfectly legit to approach the album more simply--as a means to enjoy the raw, uncomplicated beauty of Welsh’s voice. It’s simply a bonus that on Dream Songs, he’s found a way to push it into some captivating new places.