Cloud Nothings, which began as the solo bedroom project of Cleveland’s Dylan Baldi, are one of the biggest acts in indie rock this decade. Both their 2012 and 2014 releases, Attack on Memory and Here and Nowhere Else , garnered plenty of critical acclaim and did well on year-end lists. I personally never got into them as much as maybe I should have, although I’ll admit that the final track on their last album, “I’m Not a Part of Me“, was one of my favorite songs of 2014 (FYI, that video is kinda creepy). Three years later (their longest period of gestation thus far), they’ve returned with this new album, which has received unenthusiastic reactions from the music press, at least relative to their last two LPs.
And for the life of me I can’t really figure out why. As someone who didn’t catch the Cloud Nothings fever, Life Without Sound sounds to me like classic Cloud Nothings, with some of the same gripes I’ve always had with them, but embodying the strengths I always conceded them. Baldi is still throwing his emotions at a wall and hoping something sticks, his lyrics resembling whatever words he scrambled together to best describe his inner turmoil. He’s still great at writing catchy melodies and poppy progressions that are distorted and angry enough to skirt a fine line between pop-punk and post-rock. This album is certainly cleaner and more polished (likely due to production work by John Goodmanson, responsible for crafting Los Campesinos! huge, colorful arrangements), and the majority of the tracks are more poppy and melodic and less brooding than work on their previous records.
Life Without Sound even includes the staple one great Cloud Nothings song, a track that’s both raw and emotional as well as catchy as hell. “Enter Entirely”, sequenced dead center on the 9 song track list, combines a sweet little riff, a head-nodding 1-2 beat, a good melody line, some of Baldi’s better one-liners (“Feeling out on a limb because I’m out of my mind / But it’s fine”), a vocal performance that’s full of swagger before his trademark explosive, reaching angst hits on the dynamic chorus, and a huge, emotional coda that builds bigger and bigger. The lasting sentiment, “I’m moving on but I still feel it / You’re just a light in me now” is optimistic but honest, and the idea Baldi is presenting, that an ex- can leave a lasting impression even after they’ve physically departed, is presented clearly and concisely.
But the rest of Life Without Sound always falls short of this track in one way or another. The first two songs, “Up to the Surface” and “Things Are Right With You”, are both riddled with subpar lyricism, as Baldi expresses his ideas about being depressed (but recognizing that those feeling exist in a cycle that will eventually pass) through metaphors that are more vague than poetic (“The sun circled ’round the end / In darkness I’ve evolved again”, “Patiently waiting alone and now / Follow the line to sort it out”). These songs, along with sixth sequenced “Modern Act”, all go for the ‘loud verse / soft chorus” formula, and by somewhere in the middle of the record, you recognize just how formulaic a lot of Cloud Nothings song structures are: Verse – Hook – Verse – Hook – Bridge/Solo – Coda. Each track is a similar 4-minute length, and the biggest deviation comes from “Darkened Rings”, which explodes with a burst of energy but then repeats the same progression and lyrics (“Look through my life / Some darkened rings with a few! bright! highlights!”) for it’s entire run-time without much dynamic variation.
There are still great hooks to be found. “Sight Unseen”, at 7th in the order, has a catchy chorus and some honest-to-goodness harmony vocals. Baldi’s hooks almost always repeat a particular phrase (“Feel right feel lighter”, “The world of sight unseen”, “I’m not the one who’s always right”) which help to sharpen the song’s focus, but the verses don’t support these ideas with enough colorful language, personal experience or interesting anecdotes for my taste.
As many have pointed out before me, drummer Jayson Gerycz is a powerhouse who does a great job of ratcheting up the intensity of a song and is always on-point with his drum fills. Baldi’s solos range from fine to catchy, and never feel overextended. The guitars are bright and punchy, and I have no major gripes with the production, aside from perhaps the simplicity of the arrangements.
But the record completely changes gears in the final two songs, abandoning the verse/chorus pop structure of the previous tracks in favor of dark, prog and post-hardcore-inspired pieces that make no appeal to catchy melodies and instead sink Baldi into a dark place where he contemplates the linearity of time (“Years of my life have fallen behind / Try to go back from older inside”, on “Strange Year”) and the afterlife (“I believe in something bigger / I find it hard to realize my fate”, on “Realize My Fate”). I don’t much care for either of these tracks, from both a melodic and lyrical standpoint, and they end an otherwise solid album on a sour note.
There’s nothing on here that makes me rethink my opinion on Cloud Nothings. Baldi writes great hooks and thrusts plenty of emotion into his choruses and codas, but consistently falls short lyrically and isn’t quite Swans when it comes to post-rock. It may have been time for the synthesizers, or some wide-open song structures, but Baldi played it by the book here, and the result is mostly fine, sometimes awesome and sometimes weak. At this point, I think I’d rather put my favorite Cloud Nothings songs onto one sweet mix CD than choose a favorite album, as the themes and style (and artwork) doesn’t really change between one release and the next. But if you liked Cloud Nothings’ previous stuff, you’re still gonna like this.