The last few years before this new decade kicked in were a time of exciting and creative confusion. Capitalizing on self-guided drive suddenly became the more beneficial strategy to get your music across, a welcome opportunity provided by the burgeoning rise of boutique indie blogs, who actually held the power to change the life of a bedroom recorder in a matter of hours.
Both Nathan Williams and Dylan Baldi benefitted from this trend by writing scuzzy, lo-fi albums that were jam-packed with satisfying pop hooks. Williams’s Wavves project surged early on with the release of King of The Beach, a deceptively joyful record with higher production values that injects some much-needed summer ebullience into an otherwise self-loathing character. It was widely celebrated and with good reason: Williams was more focused and less clownish, and turned from weed-smoking loner into left-field celebrity with indie heartthrob Bethany Cosentino by his side. Meanwhile, Baldi failed to entice much interest with his self-titled full-length debut as Cloud Nothings, a hyperactive punk-pop record coming from the Jay Reatard school of fast and quirky that could leave a headachy sensation with its sugar rush of guitar hooks.
Baldi’s steely, determined drive would eventually quiet those who were beginning to second-guess his talent, especially since his approach has always been more trial-and error. Which didn’t work in the same way for Williams – his recorded output is more sparse and even calculated, his confidence sucked dry when he released the mostly forgettable Afraid of Heights. So it makes sense that both Williams and Baldi are joining forces after having taken similar career paths, though curiously, one would assume that Baldi’s would’ve outgrown him by now with his late-blooming success.
If anything, their latest collaboration, No Life for Me, comes across like two old friends reuniting for a weekend retreat to complain about their significant others. At a brisk 22 minutes, it adopts Baldi’s discontent aggro-angst with William’s more considered, though no less dejected, quiet-loud dynamics. Most of the album is jointly credited and the music also reflects that: “How It’s Gonna Go” coats its layers of thick distortion with a rhythmic, grungy feel more akin to William’s output, while a more level-headed Baldi tempers his stern-faced admission in the chorus until they both go completely barmy in the song’s torrential outro. Both are crossing familiar but new territory, feeding from each other’s energy like two marathoners in training.
This symbiotic fusion allows for both of them to even tinker with their old songs without overshadowing each other, like in the title track, an exhilarating ripper that could initially be confused for, say, William’s “So Bored” before Baldi enhances its chorus with a bouncy, gleaming chord progression. It’s as if Baldi extracts some of that Cali punk sneer that comes easily to Williams so he can convert it into a more propulsive and less melancholic form of Midwestern emo. There are, however, some unfamiliar elements that further confirm that this is, in fact, a joint, standalone project and not just an excuse to rewrite each other’s songs. They must’ve been jamming to some Sonic Youth while they were in the process of writing “Come Down”, which adopts Thurston Moore’s off-the-cuff lissome guitar picking without losing its anthemic thrust. Same goes for a pair of instruments that, though peppered with some unorthodox touches, mainly disrupt from the album’s more straight-ahead approach.
Williams and Baldi may be on two opposite poles at the moment, the former struggling for relevance while the latter enjoys inviolable acclaim as a critics’ darling. So it’s natural to presume that No Life for Me is a vehicle for Williams to get back into the public consciousness with a whole new set of tricks. Regardless of where they stand, however, neither treat this project as an afterthought, giving the material as much care as if it were their own. It isn’t forward-thinking, either, though the tight-knit kinetic spirit they display, steaming with vital ardor, makes for a uniformly satisfying listen. Perhaps both have channeled some of that irrepressible angst, but this fitting pairing proves they’re still as bummed as they’ve ever been.