Hello, reader(s). I don’t know about you, but I’ve been caught in a deep, dark depression since November and I’ve been in dire need of a win of any kind. I’ve been on the ground with someone’s foot on my chest, and while I don’t dare ask that person to lift his foot entirely, it would be nice if he didn’t push down on my ribs quite so hard. I’d like to breathe.
Well, here’s a small win for all of us. Here’s a letting up of the pressure on my chest. Cloud Nothings’ new album drops on Friday, and it’s fantastic. Life Without Sound is everything I need right now musically.
This might be the band’s catchiest album to date.
“Things Are Right With You” and “Modern Act” are right up there with Here and Nowhere Else’s “I’m Not Part of Me” in terms of pure pop-punk goodness. Yet this might also be the band’s darkest album to date, a dichotomy that works to strengthen the album rather than pull it in too many directions.
Even the weaker tracks here (“Darkened Rings” and “Strange Year”) aren’t bad and furthermore accentuate the mood of the Life Without Sound, offsetting the poppy, albeit melancholy, tone of much of the rest of the album. As on previous records, Cloud Nothings can’t help but write tunes with serious hooks — even as they rock their hardest.
Some of the darkest moments on Here and Nowhere Else and Attack on Memory were contained within longer songs that alternated between pop, jamming and darkness (“Pattern Walks” and “Wasted Days” being the twin epics that come to mind). They employ a different tactic here, separating dark, moody tracks from the poppy tracks more than ever.
Where before, songs like “Darkened Rings” and “Strange Year” may have fused with other songs to be movements within a greater whole, they stand alone as tracks that are okay on their own without standing out yet work so well within the framework of the album. “Realize My Fate” is the track that most resembles the before mentioned “Pattern Walks” and “Wasted Days” in terms of jammy darkness, but it does this at a fraction of the time.
Actually, despite being longer than the previous two albums (and despite having one additional song than either of the previous two), everything on Life Without Sound is streamlined and condensed.
Not much has changed in terms of quality or tone since Cloud Nothings’ breakthrough album Attack on Memory. Not much needed to change. But these subtle differences in album and track structure make a big difference after two albums that were structured in very similar ways. It breaks the band’s recent album formula without changing what works or what makes them special.
They’ve always been more about tone and feeling than about lyrics, which isn’t to imply that Dylan Baldi is a bad lyricist. I only bring this up because there are times it’s hard to make out exactly what he’s saying, and in those times, it really doesn’t matter. You can feel what he’s saying. The music and vocals always feel existentially bleak regardless of how poppy the songs can get.
In this way, Cloud Nothings remind me so much of Nirvana, something I am not the first to write nor will I be the last.
They don’t even particularly remind me of Nirvana in terms of style. This band dabbles much more in pop-punk than Nirvana did even at their catchiest. And no matter how much both bands differ or don’t differ musically, they meld ugly and pretty into a disgusting, beautiful music package like few other bands ever have.
The lyrics here may not be able to stand on their own the way highly quotable bands like Titus Androndicus and Hold Steady have throughout their careers, but they also don’t have to stand on their own. All the parts of every song work in symbiosis with each other to accentuate each other and raise the pedigree of the album as a whole.
On the final track of the album, “Realize My Fate”, Baldi screams “I find it hard to realize my fate” repeatedly throughout the song. The effect of this would only be a fraction as moving and frightening if it weren’t delivered to perfection via a pained and dying growl over slow chugging guitars.
Important to the discussion of this album, and of Cloud Nothings in general, is the idea that staying with the same sound for three albums straight is not equal to their songs sounding samey. This itself is a landmark achievement that proves how great this band is at sticking with the same genre and mood across these albums without becoming boring.
They pull off this high-wire act by never declaring any melody off-limits.
Perhaps a chorus or break has been heard before in other songs by other bands, but Cloud Nothings are masters at incorporating melodies and song structures they’ve never used before into their own compositions. Furthermore, they don’t over-rely on a single melodic hook to carry one song — at least not in their catchiest, most radio friendly songs. They can burn through several melodies in a single song without the fear of burning out because they somehow always have another perfect pop moment up their sleeves.
This band burns through melodies at the same obscene rate America burns through natural resources, so I came into Life Without Sound skeptical that they could keep it up without changing their sound in a major way. That skepticism faded away a little when “Modern Act” dropped last fall, one of the band’s top three or four catchiest songs, but I still went into my first listen with a healthy amount of cautious optimism.
Nevermore. Like the Spurs in basketball (who never seem to stop being great), I’m never going to doubt that the Cloud Nothings can’t keep it up year after year, album after album until they actually mess up. I’m not going to doubt them just for doubt’s sake.
I happen to think Life Without Sound is Cloud Nothings’ best album, but dwelling on that opinion would be missing a greater point. They’ve put together three great albums in a row now. That’s the start of a legacy.
Musically, the best compliment I can pay an album like this is it somehow sounds better with headphones on and the volume cranked all the way up, destroying eardrums.
Not all punk albums can hold up to headphone-level scrutiny, but Cloud Nothings have been low key a cut above most of their peers since 2012.
For me, Cloud Nothings will always be inexhaustibly linked to Wavves — a personal truth that only got exasperated when the two bands joined forces to release No Life for Me in 2015. I have no rational reason for thinking this besides similar genres, that before-mentioned collaboration and their sometimes eerily similar vocals, but Cloud Nothings is the band I hoped Wavves would become after King of the Beach. Never does that feel more true than on this album.
Both Wavves and Cloud Nothings have gotten harder and louder since their earlier days, but what’s remarkable about Cloud Nothings is how they haven’t lost their tunefulness in this time where Wavves have digressed into a blah hard pop-punk of sameness.
It’s hard to remember because it was so long ago, but Wavves’ King of the Beach is a great record, one the Cloud Nothings have equaled or bested (depending on your personal opinion) three times since its 2010 release. During that same year and in the following year, Cloud Nothings released two albums of bedroom-pop that hinted at what the band would become but were ultimately collections of kind of annoying pop songs.
I couldn’t have guessed back then how far these two bands’ would diverge from each other, Wavves going away from their fun, low-key experimental surfer-pop-punk weirdness and Cloud Nothings coming into their own to join the upper echelon of indie and punk rock.
So too have Cloud Nothings passed fellow indie-punkers Titus Andronicus if only because of a greater ability to self-edit.
Where Titus’ last three albums have an average run time well above an hour (the shortest album being Local Business at a breath under 50 minutes), Cloud Nothings have never eclipsed the 40 minute mark. This is despite each of Titus’ last three albums sporting many god-awful tracks that should have been left off their otherwise great albums regardless of run time (my own playlist for last year’s The Most Lamentable Tragedy shaves off nearly an entire hour, bringing it down to about 35 minutes of pure greatness).
Cloud Nothings have never had this problem. No track since 2012’s Attack on Memory feels like dead weight. To have three albums straight of near-perfection is no small task. This is a monumental achievement, and one that many of their peers haven’t figured out quite yet.
At 37 minutes, Life without Sound is the longest of their great records (by five minutes), and not a single second of this album feels wasted. I mentioned earlier how they’ve seemed to streamline each song into perfect, concise forms of what were on their previous albums. This gives each listening a breezier, quicker feel than even their two shorter albums before this one. That’s despite a darkening of tone.
I’ve probably spent more of this review talking about Cloud Nothings in comparison to other bands than about this album in and of itself, and that’s for a good reason. I mentioned legacy earlier. Right now, Cloud Nothings is better than their peers. Be it indie-punk or pop-punk or whatever similar genre we put this band, they are on the top right now, and not without adequate competition.
Similar punk bands have the tendency to have short lifespans or to release an uneven discography.
I can’t think of another similar band that has had a three album run as great as the Cloud Nothings have had.
It’s simply incredible.
And this particular album is so good that it’s making me think forward to December already. We’re in the first month of the year, and I have a hard time imagining any album besting this.
Year-end lists are in no way the end all be all of music criticism. They’re a fun way to discuss music and remember the year, but as a form of legitimate criticism, the only people who put any critical weight behind lists are the same fools who think art is anything but subjective. Still, I briefly feared that an album coming out this early in the year might be forgotten once December comes around.
I say “briefly” because an album as simultaneously bleak and uplifting as Life Without a Sound is the perfect soundtrack for the impending hellish doom of America we are sure to witness in the coming months. This album isn’t political, but how we feel in the darkest of times will surely transcend politics and become something more personal and frightening.
Those who love this album today (the way I do) will keep returning to it throughout the year.
Cloud Nothings have made music that will not be forgotten.
Life Without Sound is music that can serve as a confidant for the disillusioned, regardless of what that source of disillusionment may be.
If this year marks the beginning of Earth’s downfall, at least we got this album early enough in 2017 to enjoy before we all die.