Looking back. It’s easy, really. The past is just there, idly waiting in the slipstream of human experience to be revisited. It cannot be changed, but the only way for something to happen to it is for us to alter it in our mind’s eye. (And I recall the lyrics to ‘Heaven’: “A place where nothing, nothing ever happens”).
But there is looking back, and there is looking back. The former is the process of reminiscing: it is the act, practical and precise of racking our brains to recollect the details it has physically stored away. It is something we do (often). The second form of looking back, on the other hand, is not an action but a feeling. Nostalgia. Nostalgia is looking back at a past that is not there. It abstracts from the details of our memories a layer of unspecified past-ness, conceptual rather than factual. If reminiscing is to analyse a picture to find a particular (treasured or dreaded) detail, then nostalgia is looking out over a vast landscape (vaster than the span of a single human life), taking in the view with one’s view fastened at the horizon, where it escapes the visual field. Some of this I’ve said before here, though with rather different words.
Records could never help you you reminisce. At least, new records can’t, because they lack a causal connection to the past. But they can evoke nostalgia, because for that ache the details do not matter. Cloud’s Plays With Fire is such a record, sweet and autumnal (fall back, spring forward, remember?). They wear it on their sleeves: Cloud’s debut Comfort Songs opened with the hearty ‘Cars & It’s Autumn’. It’s a funny thing, since that song now does aid my reminiscence of another particular time and place. Plays With Fire may yet turn out to do the same thing, but at present is a nostalgic record first and foremost, through and through.
It’s no surprise, then, that on Plays With Fire, Cloud sound like Yo La Tengo, Low, and Galaxie 500 especially. Plays With Fire is Cloud’s On Fire, as it were. It’s a calm and, for lack of a better word, beautiful sound, below which a badly concealed state of panic is setting the foundations afire. The Low-like ‘Oh, So Juvenile’, for exampe, is full of love and shame, and it elicits both the desire to hug Tyler Taormina and to slowly back away. The last track of the album, the beautifully painful, painfully beautiful ‘Mary Goes Mad Again’, sung by Marie Ebacher (“spontaneously on our first date”), is reminiscent of Mazzy Star’s magic and Slowdive’s forever falling ever sinking.
But if Plays With Fire is a take on On Fire, then notice the title’s first word: plays. Despite the references, Cloud never gets as low as I Could Live In Hope. Instead, there is a strong undercurrent of desire (“and the way that I need you feels so juvenile”, Taormina sings on the aforementioned ‘Oh, So Juvenile’), a spring-like arousal. This desire to play cannot always be fulfilled, and this is expressed with wry humour, as in the last lines of ‘Heartfluttered’ – “and now’s your big moment / as she’s taking off her dress / it’s your chance to perpetuate the human race!”. Like a sardonic Mr. Brightside. And at times, Cloud does sound like 2010 rather than 1990, with clear echoes of Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavilion on electro-repetitive tracks like ‘Two Hands Bound’ and ‘Wildfire’. The way ‘Disenchanted’ starts, it could be a Fleet Foxes track!
Again, all this happens in a rather generic (as opposed to specific) way: not melodies and images, just sounds and visuals. Plays With Fire does not look back on a particular moment in time, and neither do I. It’s merely that the sound of that time as an abstract form is (for me) the sound of the feeling of nostalgia. Like the suggestive imagery of the lyrics, like the blurred woman on the album cover, like the sound of an era or the concept of the past, Plays With Fire is layered and monochrome, a timelessly nostalgic record.
-- Caspar Jacobs, March 23, 2018