Cloud Nothings have been a going concern for over a decade now. During that time, they have established themselves as a punk-pop band of the highest caliber. Between their debut, Turning On in 2010 (recently reissued to commemorate the anniversary of its first arrival) and 2018’s Last Building Burning, they released a total of seven albums, including 2015’s collaboration with Wavves, No Life for Me. They have been a one-label band, except for the Wavves release, working with Carpark Records. Those first six or seven albums were released almost every year, sometimes with a slightly longer gap between issues.
Then Covid happened, and as was the case for so many artists, everything changed. But for Dylan Baldi, the arrival of a global pandemic seems to have been the catalyst for, or perhaps it’s better to say, the crystallization of, a work ethic that has been breathtakingly prolific. The new Cloud Nothings album, The Shadow I Remember, was recorded just under the wire before Covid’s grip tightened on every aspect of our lives and was always planned for a release at this time. But once the lockdown happened, all other plans changed, and Baldi went into the kind of overdrive that might make you feel slightly inadequate if you were an aspiring artist or even just a regularly productive one.
A list of Dylan Baldi releases from 2020 includes, but is not necessarily limited to the following: a solo album entitled Enemy at Home; two Cloud Nothings albums, The Black Hole Understands and what you might consider its companion Life Is Only One Event; and two free jazz collaborations between Baldi and Cloud Nothings bandmate Jayson Gerycz, Blessed Repair and After Commodore Perry Service Plaza, both as the Baldi/Gerycz Duo. All of those 2002 releases were put out on Bandcamp. Also, Cloud Nothings released 27 live shows, also on Bandcamp. In other words, Dylan Baldi released 32 albums in 2020. And that’s if you don’t count the Bandcamp subscription service, which began in August 2020 and gets you four new songs a month, sort of like EPs. So all told, that’s 37 discrete items released by Dylan Baldi and collaborators in the calendar year of 2020.
If that productivity alone weren’t astonishing enough, what is even more remarkable is both the quality control and the energy levels of those releases. The new material was consistently strong, albeit that Enemy At Home is effectively an album of demos. The two Cloud Nothings Bandcamp albums were an almost refreshing return to the band’s very early days and what you might even call a slightly mellower sound (although some restless fans online inevitably clamored for the noisier energy of other parts of their oeuvre). The live shows were of a very high standard in terms of sound quality and song selection, not to mention the vitality of hearing the band’s live evolution over the better part of a decade. All in all, 2020 was a phenomenal year for Dylan Baldi and Cloud Nothings, and he barely left his house.
And so you might be forgiven for feeling exhausted (just as you might forgive Baldi himself) before we even get to a consideration of what might be considered the “official” follow-up to 2018’s Last Building Burning. But yet, The Shadow I Remember doesn’t allow you to rest as a listener, even as Baldi doesn’t allow himself to “stay useless”, as he once rather misleadingly pleaded on 2012’s brilliant Attack on Memory. Because, and this is an important thing to say about Dylan Baldi and his band, Cloud Nothings are very good at what you might call misdirection.
This manifests itself in several ways, one of which is that you might think they’re a punk band, but they have hooks that songwriters in Swedish pop music factories would kill for. You might also think they’re a pop band, but they’ll rip your head off with a visceral aural attack just when you were enjoying Dylan’s plaintive croon. You might look at them in photographs and think they’re a bunch of slackers, but then go right ahead and look at their discography and begin to compose your lengthy apology. In short, Cloud Nothings contain multitudes, and The Shadow I Remembercontains as many multitudes as you can shake a stick at. The only reason it might be difficult to say that this new album is their best is that they’re all equally good and all equally varied, and all equally vital.
So let’s dig into this latest release, the band’s ninth album. And speaking of misdirection, you might be forgiven for thinking that this is what you might call a “Covid album” as you listen to the lyrics of the opening track, “Oslo”, where Baldi begins, “The world I know has gone away.” But in fact, the album was recorded in early 2020 (in Chicago with Steve Albini, as they did for Attack on Memory in 2012) before we knew what we were in for, and so you have to pivot to another interpretation of this opening shot, or at least concede that more than one thing can be true at once (another thing Cloud Nothings force you to face up to). And sure enough, “Oslo” turns out to be a meditation on growing up, getting older, feeling adrift from the past but not fully connected to the present, and yet still wondering what the future holds – “Am I older now, or is this just another age? Am I at the end, or will there be another change?” These are, it turns out, part of the Cloud Nothings gestalt, existential meditations set against the backdrop of alternating and fused noise and melody.
In its way, “Oslo” is the archetypal Cloud Nothings song, not only because it will assault and seduce by turns, but also because the musical mood might not always match the lyrical tone, which is a delightfully bracing way to be off-balance. And what’s more, Baldi and the band have this uncanny knack of making a song that feels massive and cinematic, shifting pace, changing the subject multiple times, screaming then purring, dropping in delicate little piano pieces, bashing you over the head with guitar, bass, and drums, but all in the space of what is rarely longer than three minutes. And that, sure enough, turns out to be the point. As Baldi himself said in the press release for the new album, “That’s the goal – I want the three-minute song to be an epic. That’s the short version of the long-ass jam.” And while there have been transcendent extended jams in the Cloud Nothings canon, notably “No Future/No Past” and “Wasted Days” from Attack on Memory, for example, most of the rest of their catalog demonstrates that you don’t need eight minutes to make a song that feels like you’ve just watched an entire movie.
And so it is on “Oslo” and elsewhere on the album. While other bands would indeed stretch these kinds of things into extended rockist histrionics, Cloud Nothings are nothing if not economical, which adds to the intensity of the listening experience. What this also means is that your head will spin on the regular as you try to assimilate the fact that it feels as if they’ve crammed three songs into one three-minute span, or in the case of “It’s Love,” one of the album’s later tracks, one minute and 32 seconds.
“It’s Love” is a really remarkable slice of brilliance, as you wonder by turns if you’re listening to The Who, or Nirvana, or Hüsker Dü, until you’re reminded by Baldi’s distinctive voice and an uncanny ear for a melody, that Cloud Nothings are nothing if not their own unique band. It does seem to be Nirvana and Kurt Cobain that one hears most often here, in terms of the primal vocal scream, the crushing drum sound, the wonderful surprise of coming across a beautiful melody in the midst of what previously seemed like noise therapy, and the twinned energies of brash self-confidence and genuine introspection and doubt, the twin impostors of the punk spirit. But if this reference point pops up more than once in various ways, it’s almost as if Baldi and company want you to know that they also know the lineage they are continuing with this project. The ghosts of rock screamers past can be heard here, not in a way that haunts, but rather in a way that acknowledges them and then says, hold my beer.
Between “Oslo” and closing track “The Room It Was” (about which more presently), we are treated to nine more songs, 11 in total, just over 30 minutes of music, which feels like a whole world of experience. There are two handfuls of three-minute epics, each of them Coleridgean flights of fancy that take you to places in your mind that you might never have dreamed of. They drop you back down gently to earth each time, bewildered and ecstatic as if you have had some extra-corporeal experience. And indeed, it’s an impressive gift that Baldi has for making you feel human, more than human and not infrequently kind of sad, all at once, as if he were some kind of musical psychotropic pharmacist, regulating your mood with exquisite precision over 30 perfectly paced minutes. Because this is, at its root, music of recognition as much as it is anything else. And this is Cloud Nothings’ greatest gift to us, that they provide us a mirror of our humanity, angry, joyful, self-hating, transcendent, prideful, ashamed, feeling that anything is possible but that all may also be lost, so that we both laugh and cry together, often simultaneously. Multitudes indeed, but without ever tipping over into bi-polarity or psychological or existential disorder. This is just how it is. It doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re crazy.
The album’s standout track might be its second song, the recently released single, “Nothing Without You”, which features the wonderful surprise of a guest vocal appearance by Ohmme’s Macie Stewart. The track stands out partly because of the change of tone introduced by a female voice, but also because it’s a classic Cloud Nothings jam, at once fierce and tender, a full-frontal noise onslaught that breaks deftly into delicate melodic passages, a beautiful piano part, and the feeling of satisfaction that you thought you could only get from a live music experience. When this song ends, as is the case with so many here, you kind of want to make a whooping sound and hold your glass aloft as you notice that the exposed armpit might not be the freshest for your fellow audience members. In our current moment, reminders of personal hygiene might be well placed, but that’s not really the point. The point of that kind of moment of recognition is that a music community still exists, even if still virtually for the time being.
And that’s perhaps the real genius of The Shadow I Remember. It reminds you of what live music was like, and what it will be like again – it’s a defiant turn outward after so much turning inward these many months of our confinement. There are actually moments when the band almost mimic what they might imagine a crowd singalong used to sound like, as if to say, we’ll see you soon and you can do that part, won’t it be great? But for the moment, true to the previously established bona fides of their indomitable work ethic, they not only play all the instruments, they also play the part of the responsive audience, as in the background vocals of “Am I Something”, for example, where a drama of self-doubt is played out in the imagined realm of a band playing to a crowd of kindred self-doubting spirits.
A lyric like “Am I something, do you see me, does anybody out there really need me?” speaks both to the isolating self-doubt of the artist as it does to the alienating confinement of the listener, who can easily identify with such a question. In these times we might be forgiven for wondering if anyone is out there anymore and if we are of any real use. Cloud Nothings are here to remind us that were together before and we will be together again. Just imagine the feeling of solidarity you will get when you can all ask that question en masse, to each other, and be validated and affirmed by the answer of your very juxtaposition with like-minded fans, drunk on the euphoric camaraderie of being deafened and uplifted by the live music experience once again.
If we think of the experience of listening to The Shadow I Remember as the mimetic version of a live show we cannot yet attend, the closing track “The Room It Was” serves then as the encore, the room of the title serving as the venue for the imaginary gig we have been attending. And once again, the band provide their own contrapuntal energy, where Baldi finally intones the album’s title, rasping the first part, “The shadow,” before more tenderly and wistfully singing the whole phrase, “The shadow I remember,” as if the shadow is itself a memory of how we used to commune, something that makes him both angry in his iteration of the first part of the phrase and poignant in its second utterance. It’s a brilliant way to end the album, delivering the album’s title, framed as the simultaneous sound of anger, pain, regret and hope. The room as it was and the room it will be once again, with all of us in it. Ok, so maybe this is their best album.