In most pop songs, particularly modern chartbusters with their huge, soaring choruses, the vocal hook is where one’s attention is usually directed. Naturally, however, guitarists will prize axemanship above all other virtues, though whether that means fetishizing funky riffs or just appreciating a really badass solo might vary from person to person. And if you ever talk to someone who tells you that the breakdown is the best part of a song, you’re probably talking to someone who grew up listening to some variant of punk or hardcore. I mention this because Cloud Nothings’ latest album, Attack on Memory, is the work of a band that clearly loves a breakdown, whereas their last release, Cloud Nothings, was a power-pop album that could be easily enjoyed by the hooks-front-and-center camp.
Even if you ignore the fact that Cloud Nothings made this transition in under a year, its a fairly dramatic overhaul of the heartfelt pop-rock style that Dylan Baldi developed back when Cloud Nothings was just a guy, his instruments, and his computer. Only two tracks deep, you’ll be traversing a nine-minute stretch of needling guitar lines and cresting distortion, Baldi and his bandmates pushing themselves into sonic territory far more reminiscent of Queens of the Stone Age at their most gloriously stoned than any of the band’s likely tourmates in the lo-fi scene. The opener, “No Future/No Past,” is shorter but no less extreme. It’s a brooding slab of post-hardcore that sounds like it could’ve been recorded for Sunny Day Real Estate’s Diary, thanks to its eerie harmonies and Baldi’s jagged screams.
Cloud Nothings couldn’t have picked a better hand to produce this album than Steve Albini. He’s helped give noise-rock and alt-rock some of their defining statements, and his expertise at recording and mixing abrasive guitar tones is put to great use here. The guitars on the instrumental standout “Separation” sound vibrant and jazzy as the band tears through a number worthy of the recently reunited At the Drive-In.
I suspect that Baldi’s singing on the album won’t please all existing Cloud Nothings fans: His adenoidal hollering, cribbed from ‘90s emo acts like Piebald and Cap’n Jazz, will strike many ears as obnoxious, and all the more so because it’s clearly a style he’s affected for the album. But it’s a perfect fit for Attack on Memory, an album driven thematically by a 20-year-old’s initial, post-adolescent attempts to come to terms with the big, empty expanse of time that he used to call his future. It helps that Baldi is rarely unconvincing as he scoffs, barks, and screams in manic fashion, committing himself to his vocal performances with a new sense of confidence. Besides, “Stay Useless,” a surging mid-album number that takes its snot-nosed pop sensibility from Kerplunk and its guitar tone from the Is This It, shows that Baldi can deliver a hook clearly and efficiently, even when he’s singing from his sinuses. His mantra is, “I need time to stop moving/I need time to stay useless,” a line that encapsulates the album’s spirit of immaturity-as-self-defense-mechanism.
It seems like Baldi never wants to grow up, and mostly because he’s not sure how he can do it without becoming someone he won’t be able to stand. On “Wasted Days,” he laments, “I thought I would be more than this,” while “Our Plans” observes that, “There’s no time for another try.” Though Attack on Memory is itself a fairly bold artistic reinvention, its major point seems to be that people, unlike indie bands, don’t get to make fresh starts. And they certainly don’t get to make clean breaks with their past. Fortunately, the bleak future Baldi describes doesn’t seem to be his band’s. Cloud Nothings have never sounded so sure of their abilities, and with such a stunning step forward in their cohesiveness and vision, it’s easier than ever to imagine them becoming a genuinely great rock band.