That Cloud Cult is still doing what Cloud Cult has always done is a startling realization if you’ve paid any amount of attention to the Minnesota-based band’s output over the last 20-plus years.
Craig Minowa is the load-bearing wall in the musical house known as Cloud Cult, an (at-times) orchestral folk/rock collective known as much for their environmentally friendly approach to all aspects of the business as for the music itself (their own label imprint is called Earthology Records). There are familiar faces, to be sure, from album to album, but Cloud Cult is 100 percent Minowa’s interests and struggles. About those struggles …
What has made Cloud Cult so captivating for so long is Minowa’s earnest insistence at asking the bigger questions again and again (and again). The wrestling never stops. Picture Minowa as an artistic centrifuge whose songwriting prowess serves to separate the vapid and vain from the meaningful and true. After the spin cycle is finished, the listener is left with a new set of songs upon which Minowa inquires about the meaning of life, good versus evil, the existence of God, and so on.
After two decades of such melodic contention, the safe bet would be on Minowa’s exhaustion, but that’s not the case at all on Metamorphosis. If anything, Minowa is as confused and curious as ever before. This time around, however, there’s a bit less frustration at the uncertainty of life; instead, there’s a settled okayness with it all — think of a comfortable silence between two lovers. It feels like a more mature series of messages even as he retains his earnest posture all the while.
The beauty of 2016’s The Seeker was its cinematic approach, complete with accompanying film featuring actors Josh Radnor and Alex McKenna. Metamorphosis is far more grounded and features background noises from the remote Amish cabin in which it was written and recorded. The instrumentation is organic and the compositions feel more simple and straightforward.
While some of the cinematic punch of Seeker is missing here, there’s a tender beauty to the songs on Metamorphosis that connect all the same. Minowa’s own relationships — with his children and with his recently deceased father — make up much of the album’s lyrical terrain, allowing him to explore and explain his own discoveries from asking the bigger questions to a new generation.
Consider the emotional range of Minowa’s tribute to his father on “Victor”: “There’s an old farm road that’ll lead your ghost to heaven / But I know you’re a little afraid / I wish I could still be that kid in the back of your Buick / Making sure you get there okay.” From there he projects upon the realities of his future years of saying goodbye to his own offspring, “You’ve been learning how to walk away since we taught you how to crawl / Someday I’ll be holding hands with the shadows of your childhood in these walls.”
Those same projections on later years are a common talking (singing) point for Minowa throughout Metamorphosis as he battles to stay present and enjoy the life in front of him (“The Best Time”) and the lessons learned as we look back (“The Firefly and the Snake”). Yet for all the wondering and wandering documented over the years, there’s a resolution at work in Minowa. Check “Bigger Than Me,” the apt closing track on Metamorphosis, on which he also admits, “Knowing I know nothing is the only thing I know.” He further writes:
When I have my doubts about the meaning of this life,
I see it in my children, and I see it in my wife.
I don’t need the answers, I just need a friend.
‘Cause the only thing worth knowing is love in the end.
If all of this sounds emotional and even exhausting, I’m sure it is. But the beauty of Minowa’s willingness to “go there” with each and every release is what provides the work with such significance.