Each year lately, there seems to be an album that feels significant, but never quite garners the level of attention one would expect. In 2012, Exitmusic dropped their stunning debut Passage, a shattering collection of songs that was equal parts Bjork and Radiohead, but never caught on. Last year, These New Puritans released the elegiac, meticulously arranged Field of Reeds, which was likely unheard by anyone outside the band’s devoted fan base. Although it is still too soon to say, Cloud Boat’s sophomore LP Model of You may end up being this year’s album that never reaches the audience it deserves.
Cloud Boat consists of Tom Clarke and Sam Ricketts, hailing from the U.K. They garnered some attention touring with James Blake and Mount Kimbie in recent years, but never amassed significant hype. Their 2013 debut Book of Hours is a haunting, downtempo affair that was gorgeously executed, but perhaps struggled to stand out in a crowded field.
Just a year after releasing that album, Cloud Boat are back with Model of You, a distinctly more vibrant event. Following “Prelude,” Model of You lunges into “Hideaway,” and it becomes clear that these guys are looking to make a statement. “Hideaway” surges and retreats into the ethereal first single “Carmine,” and already Cloud Boat have expressed more emotional and sonic range in two tracks than some acts manage in entire albums.
This dynamic is maintained throughout the rest of the tracks, alternating between towering crescendos and melancholic piano ballads. While that may sound like the recipe for a Coldplay album, Cloud Boat’s songs are far more nuanced, textured, and personal. Best of all, Cloud Boat aren’t afraid to get weird. “Aurelia” is the album’s only true dance track, and would make a great soundtrack to a rave at a haunted house. Album closer “Hallow” builds upon a skittish beat with Clarke repeating “I’ll build a model of you,” driving himself into a tormented frenzy, which is echoed in the music. Some will miss the minimalist electronic sketches that comprised Book of Hours, but Clarke and Ricketts are competent enough as songwriters to make their new full-bodied sound work.
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It would be unfair to write this review without mentioning Clarke’s expressive vocal performance across Model of You. While his voice on Book of Hours was often cloaked in shadowy effects (somewhat reminiscent of early How to Dress Well), his performance here is confident, even thunderous. Forsaking spectral vocals for a more direct performance was a wise choice, and bolsters the songs’ complex arrangements.
Critics of this album will undoubtedly call it derivative, and that claim is not unfounded. It can easily draw comparisons to work from Radiohead, Depeche Mode, and The Antlers, among others. But Cloud Boat experiment with song structure in a way that gives these tracks fortitude. “Portraits of Eyes” decomposes into an urgent loud/soft dynamic that is breathtaking. The instruments suddenly drop around Clarke’s voice, only to swallow him back up before he can catch his breath. Even the lyrical content is masterful, with Clarke lamenting “the second page of my life is all selfish desires / it looks like the work of a child.” Thematically, Model of You is almost uncomfortably introspective, but never overwrought. Even the most melodramatic moments feel earned, and the duo somehow dodges coming off as self-serious.
While these big songs may sound festival-ready, they are intensely personal, and seemingly penned more for the sake of the artist than for audiences. That is precisely what makes the album such an intriguing listen, but may ultimately prevent Cloud Boat from finding a wider range of fans. But that’s why Model of You will feel so special to those who seek it out.