Kygo could have gone the easy route. After being crowned the unofficial poster child of tropical house for his pan flute synth-heavy remixes back in 2014, he would have been well within his rights to resign himself to exclusively releasing music that fell within the confines of the genre.
Sometime around the end of last summer, however, the Norwegian DJ/producer began to demonstrate that he wasn’t content to be summed up so simply as an artist. When he uploaded the entirely instrumental “Piano Jam” series to SoundCloud, not only did he reveal his capabilities as a multi-instrumentalist to the world – in a way, he foreshadowed what was to come on his debut album.
Now, Cloud Nine has arrived, and it exceeds all expectations.
Taking creative risks can definitely backfire. Were Kygo not the caliber of musician he’s proven himself to be, the manifold styles incorporated into each track of Cloud Nine could have sounded as disconnected from one another as the songs on Avicii’s sophomore album, Stories. Nonetheless, just enough stylistic threads weave each of the tracks together in such a way that although plenty of them can’t be categorized as tropical house, they still make sense alongside those that could.
Kygo makes his intentions known from the album intro. Ambient melodic elements usher in a meandering piano progression that dances from major to minor scales, telling an ultimately somber story that contrasts with the lighthearted tropical house ethos to some degree.
Afterwards, “Stole the Show” reminds the listener what it was that put Kygo on the map in the first place. Having just debuted it in time for his performance at the 2015 edition of Ultra Music Festival, it almost came to prophesy his career arc over the course of the festival season that would follow while presenting a distinctly more upbeat incarnation of his tropical house style than what he turned out on “Firestone” in 2014.
Speaking of which, “Firestone” makes an expected and fitting appearance on the effort. Conrad’s verses exude a tenderness that perfectly accompanied the track’s ebb and flow between melancholy and playful melodies.
For that matter, it’s not like Kygo completely left tropical house behind in his other song selections for Cloud Nine. Even though numbers like last year’s “Here For You” didn’t make it on the album for whatever reason, tracks like “Stay,” “Carry Me,” “Fiction” and “Happy Birthday” account for enough of the DJ/producer’s signature style that he doesn’t seem flat-out ashamed of his roots.
Still, the bold experiments are where the album shines. “Raging,” which Kygo released a month early, opens up with impressive fretwork from the guitarists of Irish alternative rock band Kodaline before an ethereal piano interlude joins it with understated synth melodies.
While “I’m in Love,” featuring Irish singer/songwriter James Vincent McMorrow, was teased in a seven-song minimix that Kygo uploaded back in February, its full version arrives with the release of Cloud Nine and exposes another vibrant shade of his creative spectrum. “Not Alone” is a winner as well, as it’s accompanied by British vocalist RHODES and an introspective progression that will certainly stick with you.
“Nothing Left,” “Fragile” and “Serious” widen Kygo’s stylistic range even further – especially the latter track, as a scat singing break contributed by Matt Corby introduces jazz-reminiscent elements that you might not expect to hear in the album of an artist whose name frequents major EDM festival lineups.
For that matter, of all the tracks on Cloud Nine, the one most likely to find its way into the sets of the the mainstream EDM artists with whom Kygo shares so many stages is “Oasis.” Shimmering synth work combined with the vocal contributions of Foxes, who sang on Zedd’s 2013 hit “Clarity,” occur to me as being stylistically more similar to progressive house than anything else. Ironically, “Oasis” would be the perfect title for a tropical house opus of sorts – but then again, compared to everything else about the album that would be a kind of tacky move.
The 15th and final track, “For What It’s Worth,” makes for a fitting close. Kygo previewed its wistful piano melody in a video that he uploaded to his Facebook page last week, but the addition of Angus and Julia Stone’s vocal exchange colors it with a raw emotion that stays with you long after the song ends.
In many ways, Cloud Nine gives electronic music artists tasked with navigating the post-EDM landscape a roadmap of sorts. It gracefully pays respect to the influences at its foundation while simultaneously refusing to adhere to the restrictive boundaries of genres, incorporating instrumentals and styles with such taste that each track of the album sounds like the logical next step in the creative journey of a true mastermind.
Simply put, Cloud Nine makes you feel that as uncertain as times may be, the best is yet to come. For Kygo, at least.
Uncannily, Kygo's Cloud Nine stands as a mile marker for the state of mainstream music and is one of the most skillfully executed albums in recent memory.