The bookends of the group’s classic second LP and a fiery new album signifies the staying power of Dylan Baldi and his American band
To hear Cloud Nothings is to glimpse into the mindscape of one Dylan Baldi, a Cleveland pop-smith who consistently banged out charming lo-fi pop bangers for years before shifting course towards darker and more urgent territory with 2013’s indelible Attack On Memory.
As his solitary refinement of such craft continued to build steam, leading to tours with the likes of similarly-aligned bands like Woods and Real Estate, Baldi left college behind to pursue his vision professionally, and has rarely paused for breath since, his band expanding along with his audience and critical renown. Recorded between European tours in Baltimore, 2011’s debut self-titled album was Baldi’s first makeshift attempt at a cohesive statement, in this case a wholesale and un-ironic endorsement of the power of scuzzy pop-punk hooks to induce giddy joy and transcendence.
At the time of its 2011 release on Carpark, Cloud Nothings was something that earnest indie-rock rarely risked being in that era: pure fun. The songs therein were efficient sonic sugar highs condensed into thirty frantic minutes of instant ear-worms, recasting familiar structures and progressions into short eruptions of sheer moxie and mirth, often captured at breakneck speed as if Baldi were worried these ideas might float away undocumented. The hand-fashioned, technicolor pattern of the album’s cover promised exactly what the record delivered, all jangly basement rhythms and hummable power-pop choruses that could turn Robert Pollard green with envy. Baldi had clearly been listening and learning.
At times, the album seems to deliberately be shunning any coy reinvention of the wheel, depending instead on familiar context to paint rich swaths of nostalgic but infectious melodies. The ascendant falsetto Beach Boys wails on ‘Understand At All’s still induce shivers, while the ensuing ‘Not Important’ calls to mind pre-surgery Blake Schwartzenbach at his most growling Unfun aplomb.
Elsewhere, the occasional slower jams like the dreamy, multilayered “Forget You All The Time” read like Baldi’s tourmates Real Estate working with about ten percent less golden afternoon vibes. In less confident hands, a deliberately-cloying bubblegum headrush like “Nothing’s Wrong” would come off hopelessly fey or desperately primitive, but Baldi’s investment in commitment to its delivery imbue it with a kind of grimier bounce that could pass for a reuinted Smiths slumming it in some 2010s Williamsburg dive bar.
Lyrically, the album is populated with plainspoken references to confusion, disorientation, and sudden returns of self-esteem and security in the face of crippling self-doubt. The warring self-dialogue of “Been Through stands in effective contrast to its upbeat classic chord changes: “Nothing’s working, nothing’s working…do you feel alright? You shouldn’t.” Often the unspecified “I’s” or “you’s” in Baldi’s early material struggle to hide their lack of steady footing, but are also never too defeated to be lifted by unexpected hope and reassurance. On the same song, he admits sympathetically that he “can’t believe what you’ve been through”, but on “Nothing’s Wrong” it’s himself he’s cheerleading along, insisting repeatedly that “I feel better, nothing’s wrong”.
As with the music itself, these are ancient concepts that are leaned on for their universal and naturally-unifying nature, not a lazy recycling of cliches but an unashamed amplification of those cliches meant to unravel the places where they still might feel resonant and heart-tugging. Most of the time here, Baldi effectively lands the delivery, transmitting sticky-sweet melodies and tearful angsty maxims before bailing out just before it can become grating and repetitive. It’s a trick many similar bands have tried but never really mastered. Elsewhere, Baldi’s voice devolves into blurry indecipherability between those frequent hits of sunshine, but enough of the general sentiment remains to communicate compassion and life-affirming desperation nonetheless. His subjects are risking something that’s either considerable or just feels that way, in the way everything feels huge and melodramatic when you’re still under drinking age.
Just recently, Cloud Nothings released their latest full-length, The Shadow I Remember, a loaded title considering it reunites them with producer Steve Albini, who helped steer the band from the candy-coated hues of their self-titled effort and towards greyscale post-punk furor with Attack On Memory. With each release, Baldi drifts further from the shore of these simple confectionary pop pleasures, and while no one would argue against the worth of his band’s later iterations, there’s a wistful sort of bittersweet nostalgia listening back in 2021 and thinking of the alternate path the band could’ve continued down, where they may have fine-tooled and perfected this power-pop instead of fleeing it.
It was easy in 2011 to picture Baldi potentially drawing returns from the same well for the remainder of his days, to inevitably-diminishing but potentially still-enjoyable returns. However, Attack On Memory would be a hard left swerve in a different direction, layering his singular nasal bleat in greyscale noise-rock churn and Steve Albini’s signature cavernous drum production.
In hindsight, then, one can see Cloud Nothings as a sort of fond farewell to this first rainbow-soaked phase of his career, a summation of everything he’d incorporated and figured out in his basement, across tape releases and tiny stages in the years leading up to this thesis statement. Though many would come to prefer his earthier later incarnations, there’s still much to be said for that bespectacled Rust Belt kid pounding away at an obsession with pop perfection in private, and the triumphant fruit his pursuit yielded.
This is the sound of mastering that impulse before being ready to move on to something new. Thankfully, the document he left behind as proof is one we’re welcome to revisit whenever we may need its special gumption.