[31 March 2014]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
On Cloud Nothings’ breakthrough record, 2012’s Attack on Memory, lead singer/screamer Dylan Baldi ripped through a series of anti-mantras. The album was a rebirth of sorts, Cloud Nothings shifting from bedroom project to full-on aggressive rock band, and Baldi’s voice was the most surprising new strength in the band’s sound, though backed by bassist TJ Duke and drummer Jayson Gerycz the power was hitting from all angles on that album. And they used it to deliver terse but wide-open frustration. “Give up, come to, no hope, we’re through,” Baldi repeats then screams on “No Future/No Past” setting up an album of negative declarations. Baldi needed “time to be useless”. It was an album of inaction as action, of recognizing frustration and limitation as the first step to some new freedom.
As a follow-up, Here and Nowhere Else, is at least somewhat more positive though often just as frustrated as its predecessor. In some ways, lining up the albums next to each other presents a reverse logic. Attack on Memory is a visceral, physical angst, focused on what a person as a bodily entity can or can’t do. Here and Nowhere Else reveals the frantic mindset behind that (in)action. Baldi’s mind, if it is his mind we’re mining here, is in search of order, of some explanation, of some clarity within confusion. On opener “Now Here In”, he begins by going outside in search of “things that should be real.” He goes on to find the differences between him and a “you”, though by the chorus he’s made another negative connection. “I can feel your pain and I feel all right about it,” he rattles off, and if this is part sneer it’s also part recognition of that pain as the “real”.
The album is full of thought and feeling but not much action. “Everytime I feel okay,” he sings on “Quieter Today”, “my head moves forward.” It turns out his “heart” does the same, so the album is not a clash between thought and feeling but rather how both can remove you from the moment. If this all seems terribly internal, it often presents itself in all sorts of breakdowns, mental, yes, but also communicative. “I don’t know what you’re trying to say,” Baldi groans on “Psychic Trauma,” while “No Thoughts” finds him screaming his frustration when “You don’t even seem to care / and I don’t even talk about it.”
These songs, and Baldi by extension, are so lost in thought that they can’t ever quite connect, which is of course all they want to do. The excellently epic “Pattern Walks” boils down to the repeated, cut-off line “I thought” over and over again. Baldi heats the song to a boil, shredding the line with each repetition. But he also obliterates the pattern by running it into the ground here. By the time we get to final track “I’m Not Part of Me”, Baldi seems to find some peace. “I’m learning how to be here and nowhere else,” he sings, cleanly, even sweetly. If Attack on Memory was about leaving behind a then, Here and Nowhere Else is about finding, even embracing, a now. The album sifts through layers of doubt, of disconnection, of neurosis, and finds, in the end, a basic but vitally recognizable connection.
Musically, the album refines the tight thrashing hooks of Attack on Memory and brightens them up a bit, from the sunburst chug of “Not Here In” to the tangled buzz of slashing hooks on “Just See Fear” to the lean, razorwire attack on songs like “Giving Into Seeing”. The band is just that much tighter, that much more propulsive, and the songs are that much catchier. But they also achieve an interesting transmogrification, shifting tempos and textures on a dime, stuffing some moments with lyrics and layers of guitar and crashing cymbals, and scraping other moments out into hollow space. These quick shifts and dynamic turns of mood and tempo mirror the confused frantic thinking the album focuses on. After the long shadow of the wall of distortion and jumbled echoes that close “Pattern Walks”, it’s no wonder “I’m Not Part of Me” sound clean and direct, almost like a fresh start. The frustration hasn’t been relieved, necessarily, but the mind is clearing, slowing down, taking stock instead of piling on.
This combination of ethos and musical accomplishment makes Here and Nowhere Else an excellent new step for Cloud Nothings. On the heels of a breakout, there’s no let down here and if the album doesn’t necessarily break new ground, it treads the ground of the the last record in more interesting ways, with a more confident stride. For an album that explores frustration and confusion, the pleasures and intricacies of this album ring pretty clear.