When you say you’ll do something, stay true to your word. Montreal singer-songwriter Devon Welsh vowed to release new music under his given name when his previous outfit Majical Cloudz split up in early 2016. Though fans of the electronic art-pop duo got a taste of his solo efforts with his collection Down the Mountain released later that year (in addition to projects released with other artists during 2016), Welsh has arrived once more with a proper debut LP, Dream Songs. While this project is less electronically-inclined and more focused on grand, lush string and piano arrangements than his Majical Cloudz days, his heart hasn’t disappeared from his sleeve – nor has he lost his ear for melody.
Produced and recorded by Austin Tufts (drummer of fellow Montreal mainstays Braids), Welsh wastes little time tugging on heartstrings with opening track and single “By the Daylight”. The track is an intimate, string-heavy number with pop melodies that are straightforward yet still distinctly his, and violin plucking heard throughout that’s more in line with the Owen Palletts of the Canadian music landscape than an artist like Grimes (who Majical Cloudz collaborated with on “Nightmusic” off her 2012 breakthrough album Visions). In any case, it sets the pace nicely for the somber, emotionally earnest affair that is to follow.
That tone shows itself perhaps most effectively on “Dreams Have Pushed You Around” and particularly in “Comedian”; a song with decidedly dark lyrics about a comedian dying by his bedside, bodies falling apart and “a joke that’s killing everyone”. Furthermore, Welsh has attributed the album to being about the people and events in his life over the last few years, and the seemingly relationship-centred “Vision” and the nostalgic “Summer’s End” are examples of both of those things respectively.
Welsh’s voice can flip between sounding modest and reserved to powerful and expressive, particularly on “Vision” and “I’ll Be Your Ladder”. One of Dream Songs’ standouts, “Ladder” sees Welsh flexing his vocal range and techniques to add lushness and a new dimension to its understated mix of strings, ambient synths and saxophone. It’s one of the most raw and emotionally robust songs on an LP full of them.
That’s not to say it’s an album bereft of optimism, however: “Vampires” opts to put on rosier-coloured glasses with lines like “This is our shot, let’s not blow it with stage fright,” as if Welsh sees an intimidating situation as his for the taking. Closing the album on an emotional yet hopeful note is “Take it Easy”; a track guided largely by his voice, a piano and a hi-hat, where he belts “I know there is a garden in me, I feel it growing” in the song’s latter third. In his tweet announcing the project, Welsh says he “subconsciously write[s] about the things I’m hoping for, and the songs on this album are about those desires,” and, at least in some ways, his subconscious did its job well for him.
Though there’s a less generous use of synths – not to mention drum machines – to be found on this record, Dream Songs’ ability to evoke a sense of longing and intimacy through both its lyricism and sonic textures (particularly through frequent use of cello, violin and viola) delivered with Welsh’s signature delicate style makes for a well-executed solo debut. In other words, there’s no reason to believe the transition period for Majical Cloudz fans won’t be seamless.
Words by Dave MacIntyre