Plays With Fire
words by trevor elkin
photo by carson lund
True companionship is something that Tyler Taormina doesn’t take for granted. His DIY project, Cloud, earnestly credits the many friends, family and collaborators (including the mixing/mastering of Infinity Girl’s Nolan Eley) who worked with him. But his words aren’t just polite props to those good people. Following up 2013’s highly regarded LP Comfort Songs, the new album Plays With Fire digs in the shallows of relationships searching for hidden, fiery primitive drives that make us destroy as well as desire others.
That might all sound a little deep and ambitious for a 32-minute record that recalls both the brackishly bitter lows of Galaxie 500 and the honied garlands of Yo La Tengo’s highs, but Cloud pulls it off. The brevity of the album, condensed from several years’ work, actually renders it utterly enigmatic, like a lifetime reduced to a random clutch of snapshots. On Plays With Fire, however, Taormina’s songs are blistered but precious polaroids, glue barely holding them on to the pages of a family album.
A fragile thread that runs through the album is woven from its conflicted feelings of love and belonging, cynically self-aware that they’re all ‘just chemicals in the brain’. Without flinching, Cloud introduces us to this seconds into opening track, “Happers Laugh”: “true strength needs love to ease violence/ your eyes are love mixed with bullshit”. But where there could be malice and hate, we hear easygoing optimism through Taormina’s unhurried, wisp-like voice.
The mystery deepens, because we never know if the songs here are autobiographical. Their stories are ambiguously voiced and sometimes in the third person, but there is a constant which we are able to hold onto from track to track: the reflection of Taormina in the eyes of those around him. On “Disenchanted” he sees himself in the middle of all those different relationships wondering how deep they go – what would it take to pull them apart? The urgent, ticking rhythm that leads into the verse implies that we shouldn’t waste our limited time together on such silly questions. However, for Cloud, this doubt perpetually hangs over the otherwise beautiful and moments in life. Being open to love also means being vulnerable to the darkness of others, letting it in along with the light: “now it’s just me in the dark / now it’s just the dark in me”.
For the middle part of Plays With Fire, Taormina is victim, perpetrator then rescuer in his own inner-drama triangle, as witnessed through the eyes of lovers, friends and relations. Heard in this context, recent single “Two Hands Bound” is a falsely joyous psychedelic stomp of a song, with all its uncomfortable self-effacing sorrow buried safely beneath a hands in-the-air calypso chorus. “Me, Her & Lavender” gently meanders its way through sticky, hazy guitars and vanilla-flavoured nostalgia. It’s almost overwhelming, Taormina’s voice is only just heard above the sentimentality of the melody, but enough to make out the conflicting words of someone struggling against the weight of it all – “and the length of your life, did it ever feel right / now I’m older than ever and holding onto life” .
A stripped-back arrangement of piano, guitars and trombone sets up a more plaintive mood on “Oh so Juvenile” as, candidly, it looks back on a sexual awakening that was full of self-doubt, animalistic impulses and vanity. Airy and carefree, “Heartfluttered” tells a similar story (perhaps in a different time or place) but it is lifted up with Brian Wilson-like romanticism. He is, this time at least, a little less hard on himself: “well yes you are fucked up / you may always be this way / but the trick is to know when it’s okay”. American author Hubert Selby Jr said “when you write about the people you hate the most, do it with love”. For Cloud this wisdom applies to the self as much as it does to others in our lives.
Finally, Plays With Fire realises how difficult it can be to deal with the strong feelings of others, when you are uncertain of your own and how it’s easy to turn negativity in on yourself. Love is confusing; in its early stages when it has no name or is undefined, or later, when familiarity becomes tiresome, doubt is as powerful as hope in the relationship. Powered by Animal Collective’s centrifugal force, “Wildfire” cuts through the randomness of it all, spelling out the nature of life in simple terms: “Every flame wants to be a wildfire…every orgasm makes you wonder, oh is this it? This is it.” There are many turning points on this album, but the fleeting emptiness between this track and the quiet repose of “Comet Happer” feels the most cathartic and full of closure. What happens next is characteristically left open to interpretation, but we know that there will be “no more staying on the other shore, for a wish that we’ll be all right” . By way of epilogue, “Mary Goes Mad Again” waltzes and sways without any care to the album’s end. Its blissfully engaging melody, according to Taormina, “was spontaneously sung by Marie Ebacher on our first date”. Every ending searches for its end, but sometimes it finds a beginning.
Cloud manages to create a kind of connecting vision across Plays With Fire, despite its songs seeming as random as jigsaw pieces from 9 different puzzles. What unites them is magical; a combination of insightful maturity, restraint and the resourcefulness to translate this sensitively and selflessly into music.
Plays With Fire is out March 9, via Audio Antihero
Pre-order it here