Starting as a one-man project out of Dylan Baldi’s basement in Cleveland, OH, Cloud Nothings is proof that no matter what your situation is, in today’s internet age, anyone with skill can find success. After their initial release, Turning On (2010), Baldi gained a decent amount of attention in the indie, lo-fi community. Following up on this, he hired producer Chester Gwazda, and began work on a second project, Cloud Nothings (2011), which was much brighter, cleaner, and poppier; while still holding onto that basement-buzz that made the past project so endearing. It was also around this time that more members began to join the group.
Once their self-titled was released, they really gained ground with one of the more inventive indie projects of the 2010s, Attack on Memory (2012). The bright, simplistic nature of the past release was thrown away for a grimy, experimental journey through the ennui of Baldi’s young adulthood. Sadly, after this release, they faded more and more away from that creative sound, until finally hitting a similar checkpoint to Cloud Nothings, on Life Without Sound (2017). Life Without Sound is a very enjoyable record, due to its crafty lyricism and sick guitar playing, but there’s no denying its return to the pop nature of old. Finally, their most recent project, Last Burning Building (2018), is a record many people enjoy, but never found favor with me, personally. I thought it was an attempt at recreating some of those longer, in-depth cuts of Attack on Memory, but to no real success. So, coming into this project, The Black Hole Understands (2020), recorded and released during the extended quarantine, I had no idea what to expect.
Cloud Nothing’s Attack on Memory.
What Cloud Nothings brings to this record is once against a very catchy, accessible project filled with many enjoyable moments, but one that falls very short of their more impressive, past highlights. As the band mentioned before the release of the album, the content of this record is very melancholy. Many lyrics jump out as contemplative, conflicted, and sometimes just depressed. Some examples of this are “Nothing happens for a reason,” “It’s hard to be in this city. It’s hard to be in this place,” and “Should I just give up?”. That being said, not everything on this album is dark and foreboding. Countering this dreary tone are less-common, but still-important lyrics such as “Life won’t always be this way.” The end result of these juxtaposing tones is a mood of someone who’s distraught, but clinging on to the little hope they have.
The worst part about the lyricism, however, is the lack of diversity and creativity, mainly due to the simplistic song structures themselves. Many of these tracks don’t transition into other sections or equations, sticking with the basic verse-to-chorus-to-verse-to-chorus format. Thus, they often leave the audience with very little thought-provoking moments. This is not uncommon for the band, on their pop-heavy releases, but is still a disappointment for anyone who has seen their more reflective, poetic moments.
Outside of lyricism, the instrumentation is potentially even less inventive. With very bright guitar chords, and a straightforward drum beat, this is the most derivative the band has sounded since their self-titled release. I would compare it to Life Without Sound, but sans any of the fun instrumental breaks, or changes in musical style. This gets especially frustrating over halfway through, when the track “Right On The Edge” enters with a rougher, bluesier guitar tone, that is then drowned out by the typical guitars from the rest of the record. The most experimental, abrasive, and avant-garde moment on the whole album is the second half of “An Average World,” where a high-pitched-but-dirty squeal comes into the background until the song finishes. Compare that to almost any song from Attack on Memory, and you’ll be asking yourself “Where did this imagination go?”.
With all the negative pushed aside, the album is catchy. The dreamier vocal melodies meld well with the driving guitars, to bring a very radio-friendly sound, that just isn’t what most people expect out of the group. In fact, it’s arguable that this has some of their best vocal performances ever. Also, there is a brief break in the monotony, with the instrumental track, “Tall Grey Structure.” It’s hard to call it a new or refreshing song from the band, but it does diverge from the rest of the album a little, providing a small interlude to ready yourself for more. It’s good to note that a record doesn’t have to think outside of the box on every song for it to be decent or worth listening to, but when roughly nine tracks provide similar content, it gets a little much.
Despite making a return to their pop-friendly side on Life Without Sound, many were probably hopeful that their imagination would come out on this record, especially following Last Burning Building. I know I was. Sadly, it didn’t, or doesn’t seem to. With very derivative guitar tones, song structures, and even lyricism at points, they come off as any indie-emo band trying to pump out simple, radio-friendly tunes. Even with small moments on here breaking the norm, the project as a whole doesn’t have enough flavor to justify being labeled as anything but boring. If it weren’t for the still-skillful playing of these instrumentalists, and the smooth vocals coming out as well, I would say it’s not worth a listen. But those two elements manage to carry it just enough to make it potentially worthwhile. I’m thinking a 4/10 on this one.