Electronic dance music. A fine art in the sense that it’s a masterful way to dictate the energy and atmosphere of a room full of ravers. But not so much in the eyes of the average critical and analytic music buff, whose home lies in well-crafted, live instrumentation and audacious songwriting. Usually, electronic dance always has a habit of throwing everything, including the kitchen sink, at the listener. This happens with the volume turned up to eleven and an explosive electronic riff usually substituting for the refrain. But then you have exceptions such as Norwegian deejay Kygo’s debut album, Cloud Nine. Cloud Nine is a unique, downtempo take on a genre usually filled with loud noises. Traditionalists of EDM will probably hate the album’s calm and collected nature. However, Cloud Nine‘s marquee of catchy riffs, vibrant and spacious atmosphere and ensemble of incredible vocal talent will be a crowd-pleaser for casual listeners.
Cloud Nine clocks in at 55 minutes, consisting a joy ride of many different musical emotions across 15 unique tracks. It does this while keeping a philosophy of calm and tranquil musicianship. This is something you’d never see Avicii, Zedd, or any of the mainstream EDM artists take on. The album earns its name for a warm and relaxing experience that will have you feeling like you’re floating on “cloud nine”. There’s never an array of many different electronic melodies flying at once. There aren’t any loud drums or earth-shaking bass to be found. There is only the attractive craftsmanship of Kygo and his ability to create soulful songs out of the same “verse-buildup-drop” structure of the traditional EDM track. He accomplishes this electronic music production by regressing to simply a melody and its chords. For example, on the album’s most commercially exposed track, “Stay”, there are only three parts to the song’s “drop”: a warped piano track playing the chords, a simple synth melody and a smooth drum loop. All 3 parts are within a comparatively slower tempo than the average 140 BPM EDM track.
In various tracks, a particular live instrument becomes the feature of the track, setting the track’s mood and atmosphere with it. In “Raging”, it’s a dancing acoustic guitar. In “Happy Birthday”, it’s a commanding piano performance. Finally, in “Not Alone”, it’s a tranquil electric guitar. Some tracks bring the same instrument into the forefront, but employs them in a different way to match the intended color of the sound. “Serious” also features an electric guitar, but with a more passionate edge. This theme of the album helps give each track its own unique style and flavor. That’s what prevents Cloud Nine from becoming a 55-minute dud of aimless electronic music that sounds alike throughout.
Another strength of Cloud Nine stems from the host of amazing vocal talent featured on the album. Kygo managed to round up some rather gifted individuals. These individuals are both well-known inside and outside the mainstream and execute the album’s various vocal exercises. The biggest names on the album, John Legend and Foxes, both give some powerful performances on “Happy Birthday” and “Oasis” respectively. Legendary Australian duo Angus and Julia Stone also make an appearance on Cloud Nine. They kick out some fun and enchantment on closing track “For What It’s Worth”. Another fellow Australian, singer-guitarist Matt Corby, lays down a sensual and stimulating hymn on “Serious”.
Our hearts are like firestones
And when they strike, we feel the love
Of course, no album gets pressed onto the store shelf without carrying a few flaws. While the near-entirety of Cloud Nine‘s music and vocal talent is flawless, the album’s songwriting itself is there, existing as a substantial weight on the enjoyment of the lyrically-minded audiences. The album’s biggest weakness is it’s rather disposable lyrics. They seem to be made up simply as a reason to have vocals on the album. The track list of Cloud Nine consists mostly of poppy love songs and cheesy inspiration songs. “Firestone” has Conrad Sewell singing, albeit in a wavy and enjoyably hypnotic tone: “Our hearts are like / firestones / and when they strike / we feel the love”. The cheese is real.
Repetition is the bane of good songwriting, and unfortunately, Cloud Nine succumbs to a hell of a lot of repetition. It is not only confined to various repeats of choruses and hooks, but even deathly repetition of singular words or phrases. In the intro to “I’m in Love”, James Vincent McMorrow shouts the title of the song 23 times in a row. Yes, you heard me, in the intro alone. Foxes’ ethereal performance on “Oasis” includes of a three-line chorus where the phrase “You’re my oasis” is repeated twice. Even Angus and Julia Stone’s performance on “For What it’s Worth” is wasted on repetition. They sing the phrases: “We were kids / trying to make it up / as we go along / as we go along” and “For what it’s worth / I was only trying to / wake you up” four and eight times, respectively.
Come take my heart of glass, and give me your love
I hope you’ll still be there to pick the pieces up
There is a grand exception to the disappointing offering in songwriting, though. That exception is the song “Fragile”, spearheaded by a powerful performance by British pop icon Labyrinth. In what seems to be a sharp deviation from the corny love songs, “Fragile” draws it’s themes from the classic metaphor of the shattered heart. This falls in line with Labyrinth’s trademark of unusually artful songwriting. “Come take my heart of glass / and give me your love / I hope you’ll still be there / to pick the pieces up / ’cause baby, I’m fragile”, he sings.
For it’s rather disappointing lyrical effort, Kygo’s Cloud Nine more than makes up for it. It makes up in the form of some well-crafted, calm and collected electronic music that keeps to the form of the traditional EDM song structure…while avoiding the precarious jumping of the shark. Throughout its length, it delivers a relaxing experience through a minimalist style of production that creates a space of elation and composure in the otherwise noisy world of electronic music. Cloud Nine is backed by strong and stunning performances by a diverse range of skilled vocalists, from all kinds of fames and fortunes. For the average EDM listener used to the big sounds and heavy lines, it might be a bore. For the songwriters’ crowd, it might be a whole bunch of inedible corn, with the exception of “Fragile”. However for the casual listener, it will be nothing less than a delight.
Album Rating: B