“There is no search party for a star gone dim.” – cLOUDDEAD “The Teen Keen Skip”
No matter what direction you approach the University of British Columbia from, you’ll drive along the edges of its endowment lands, acres and acres of lush evergreens hiding everything from a particle accelerator to a nude beach. On most days the fog rolls out from between the pines, making the drive feel like some journey into a lost land, the campus itself more or less invisible until the main road splits the woods in half. The first time I heard cLOUDDEAD was on that drive as some friends and I were leaving campus to head to Vancouver proper, our driver Alex excitedly putting Ten in after getting it on import. The static hum and hiss of opening track “Pop Song” immediately struck me as the fog given auditory form, the whispery gibberish mantra the group initially lapses into functioning as arms reaching out from the ether, derailing whatever conversation I was having, forcing me to question the sounds filtering in.
More than a decade later, that’s still what I most associate Ten with, both on a sensory level and in terms of mood. Ten is an enjoyably suffocating work, it enters your system and then expands; in “Pop Song,” one of the stream of consciousness lines that gets repeated is “Cotton cotton candy/Spun any way you like it,” and you could ascribe that to the album as well, particularly given its status as part jingle/part artistic promise wrapped in a subtly sinister delivery. As cluttered as the production is– at any given moment a warped educational record sample or a roaring tiger or an atonal alarm could emerge to compete with the dueling voices– there’s also a cotton candy-like airiness to it that makes Ten lighter than it should be, keeping claustrophobia at bay without sacrificing any of the group’s immersive qualities. Similarly, like air or cotton candy or fog, cLOUDDEAD itself dissolved quickly and with minimal fuss.
Comparing Ten to the eponymous singles collection that preceed it, it’s not hard to figure out why core members Doseone, Why? and Odd Nosdam were content to have this album be both their thesis and farewell. The surreal randomness of the singles doesn’t hold up as well when strung together as an album but Ten has no such problem, it’s so thematically and aesthetically consistent you’re lulled into it and eager to return to it when the record ends. Much of that is due to the group’s masterful pacing, separating ambitious moments like “Rhymers Only Room” and “Son of a Gun” with quick, hook-heavy tracks like “Velvet Ant.” But the group’s addictive musicality and flair for melody is perhaps its least recognized trait, to the extent that abstract hip hop acts that followed in their wake seemed to miss the importance of those elements to cLOUDDEAD’s artistic success.
“The Teen Keen Skip” serves as maybe the clearest distillation of that, structured as it is around a loop of a forgotten nursery rhyme that provokes a number of different melodic and rhythmic detours. Odd Nosdam reduces the sample to a halting beat where a kid saying “what” and a lone eerie piano note spar with the double tracked voices of Why? and Doseone, but before that can get grating, synth pads, distorted breakbeats and gorgeous harmonies pop in and out of the mix.
“Dead Dogs Two” is more clearly an actual pop attempt, in many ways it shows where Why? would be taking his music soon, but it nonetheless manages to be one of the weirder moments on the album simply because its jaunty mood is undercut by the lyrical focus on the happenings around two dead and then resurrected dogs. Or maybe it’s better to view them as Schrodinger’s Dogs, simultaneously living and dying. I don’t know the true state of those animals because everything in the universe of Ten is loopy and sudden and too vague to fully grasp so you’re forced to repeat it for hours and days and months and years trying to make sense of it, to pull apart its clockwork innards except you can’t because they’ve melted on the branches of dead trees.
That peculiar state of nondeath is also present in the album’s centerpiece, “Son of a Gun,” a song I’ve picked apart in mixtape notes and in features for other sites so many times it should have lost all flavor yet I remain enthralled by it. An anti-gun mini-opera, “Son of a Gun” is Ten’s most enchanting and alienating moment, containing as many fractured timelines and narratives as a Vonnegut novel yet easy to reduce to one bit of cheeky wordplay: “jump the gun.” This refrain pops up after 1) a voicemail from a newly enlisted soldier to his family, telling them about how he’s going to learn “to shoot and drop bombs from the air I guess” 2) a distorted reiteration of his itinerary 3) a nursery rhyme cadenced protest against the “makers of guns” who will “never go hungry, may their children always play murder weapons” 4) a more traditionally oriented hip hop segment about how Abraham Lincoln never really died because we didn’t see it on the television.
Each of these sections could be their own song, each of them is wildly different in style and tone, yet they seamlessly collide, twisting what could be viewed as a simple anti-gun manifesto into something bewilderingly alien, its closing attacks on the various historical figures who jumped the gun functioning as a dual-pronged condemnation of their ties to violence and of the violent deaths they experienced laid out like a playground chant.
When I first heard Ten I may have been sucked out of distraction and driven to focus on it to decipher what it meant and where it came from, but in the years since I’ve mostly listened to it in order to achieve distraction. Ten has its sorrowful and melancholic moments, from the dirgey “Rhymers Only Room” to the sweeping “Rifle Eyes,” but it’s not a depressed album. Even the somber “Dead Dogs Two” is playful at heart, finding some kind of oddball wonder in our proximity to death. But to a depressed mind it’s a useful work, the puzzle piece structures of highpoints like “Son of a Gun” keeping the self-destruction at bay, the pea soup thickness of the mix its own kind of aural anti-anxiety medication. You listen to it to give in to it and hope its aesthetic fog can push back your personal fog if only for a few moments. There is tranquility in its secret meaningless too, like a counter ideation voice whispering that nothing is as serious as it seems to be, nothing is as meaningful as you fear, everything’s just inexplicable and that’s okay.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover