Cloud Cult's They Live on the Sun
easily ranks high on the list of saddest albums ever written. It's up there hanging out with Lou Reed's Berlin
and The Antlers's Hospice
. Which is unlikely, because it sounds exactly like a rollicking tour through some seriously catchy tunes. With a few downtempo exceptions, They Live on the Sun
is the most exuberant album ever written about inexplicable death and unbearable sorrow.
It's one of those records that I love profoundly but can't often listen to all the way through because I start to lose it. Anyone who's dived into Cloud Cult with a little bit of context will know why. Bandleader Craig Minowa wrote They Live On the Sun in the months after his two-year-old son passed away from SIDS. That alone should give you an idea of the kind of soul destruction the record unleashes on its visitors.
I mean, it doesn't get sadder than that. Failed relationships, suicide, sure, all that sucks. But to lose a son two years after becoming a father for no reason other than life is chaotic and sometimes hellish? Nothing in the world can prepare you for that kind of pain.
But if you're an artist, you deal with the loss by making art. At that point, it's probably the only thing you can do to stay sane. And so They Live on the Sun was born--the first of Cloud Cult's widely recognized meditations on life, love, loss and death. Its catchy, manic tunes climbed up the college radio charts. Few casual listeners likely guessed at the depth of pain behind the songs, but that was kind of the point: to celebrate Kaidin's life, and really, all life, by creating art at the intersection of inconsolable sorrow and freeing, boundless joy.
It'd be wrong for Minowa to immortalize his dead son with a recording that focused solely on the hole he left behind. And so They Live on the Sun delves into the pure joy of fatherhood, the moments of discovery and growth and hilarity that come with raising your first child. One song on the record features a clip of Minowa teaching Kaidin how to sing. The effect of that song is hard to describe; the love captured in that moment overshadowed by the tragedy lurking in its future makes for a gut-wrenching emotional dissonance. It feels like we're looking into a moment far too personal to be shared, yet we can't look away.
Once we pass from the bristling radio jams and broken fairy tales of the album's side A, it's a quick and uneasy descent into its sorrowful core. If you're not weeping by the end of "Sleeping Days Pt. II" there's something profoundly wrong with the emotional centers of your brain. Minowa's voice breaks over rough toy piano as he delivers one final wish to see his son again at the end of his own life. It's hard to perform a song that frank about something so painful, but Minowa does so poetically, without reserve, pouring the deepest parts of his pain into his music. True to its mission, even at its darkest, the record remains playful: "I hope you woke to fireworks in the arms of a grass-stained wizard, cause I can't bear to think that you are gone."
There's nothing harder than what Craig Minowa has gone through. But to cast it as art and share it with the world is a beautiful and necessary act. What else can we do with the ashes?