Leading up to Cloud Nothings’ fifth album, primary songwriter Dylan Baldi struggled with writer’s block. Writer’s block at this point in a songwriter’s career is somewhat common. Almost everyone goes through it at some point and Baldi was no different. Much like countless musicians before, he just wasn’t satisfied with what the band was producing, and was unsure of how to proceed. From 2010 to 2014, Cloud Nothings put out three albums, however, their fourth, Life Without Sound, took nearly three years to complete. Unfortunately, three years wasn’t enough time for Baldi to break out of his rut, and Life Without Sound is the band’s flattest, most uninspired record yet.
It’s hard to imagine that Life Without Sound is the product of anything other than Dylan Baldi settling. At this point, he has already proven that he is a very capable songwriter with a sixth sense for catchy hooks. The new album certainly has no shortage of great melodies, Baldi can always be counted on for that. What’s missing, however, is the energy. Everything that made Cloud Nothings stand out from the dull monotony of 2010s indie rock is gone. The raw, punk spirit that made Attack On Memory and Here And Nowhere Else so exciting has been replaced by a tamer, cleaner sound. The furious, impossibly fast beats which previously characterized drummer Jayson Gerycz have vanished. And Baldi’s distinctive guttural scream is almost entirely absent. As listeners, we’re left with a bunch of nice pop-rock songs, which sound fine, but don’t require any extra attention. Nothing about Life With Sound compels me to listen more than a few times.
The band’s attempt to change up their sound is apparent from the first song. “Up To The Surface” has a piano intro, something not usually found in a Cloud Nothings song. This is the same misguided path that so many bands before have gone down. Baldi and the band felt like they needed a stylistic change; Here And Nowhere Else received heaps of acclaim, but it wasn’t an update sonically from their previous album. This is likely the source of Baldi’s writer’s block. He knew he could make another good album in the same style he had been working in, but he felt that it was necessary to do something new and different. Unfortunately for Baldi, throwing in a piano intro and slowing down tempos doesn’t make music more interesting. Especially when it comes at the expense of the band’s greatest strength: their raw energy.
The band’s lack of vitality leaves Baldi’s songs much more exposed. With previous albums, the instrumental component of his songs were expressive in their own right. Songs like “Wasted Days” and “Pattern Walks” were visceral and intense, the drums and guitars pounding frenetically without relent. But on the newest album, the band is more subdued. When the instrumentals are less emotionally evocative, it means the lyrics and vocals need to carry more of a burden, and on Life Without Sound, Dylan Baldi simply isn’t up to the task. With his voice more in the spotlight, his lyrics simply fall flat. The chorus on “Enter Entirely” is a good example. “And now the lights are turning on here/My mind has fallen/And taken everything it knows now/About belonging/There’s someone I would like to be if I could be but/The path is frightening/So when I fall away then I would like to see/I enter entirely.” Lyrical simplicity can be very profound, when done right, but it’s a difficult thing to pull off. And in Baldi’s case there isn’t any meaning to derive from his straightforward lyrics. Baldi’s subject matter has always been somewhat derivative (dissatisfied youth, not belonging, general uncertainty about life, etc), but when coupled with powerful instrumentals it felt passionate and meaningful. Now it just feels hollow.
Life Without Sound isn’t a terrible album. In fact, I would venture to say it’s a pretty good album. It is full of very listenable pop music, with plenty of catchy hooks and cool riffs. The lead single “Modern Act” is a fantastic pop song, potentially Baldi’s best melodic work to date. And the album improves as it goes on; closing tracks “Strange Year” and “Realize My Fate” show flashes of the brilliance they achieved on previous albums. My primary critique is not that this is bad music, but that it’s boring music and in my opinion there isn’t much reason for it to exist. Baldi and Co. are trying too hard to be something that they’re not and in the process they’ve lost touch with the energetic spirit which fueled their previous albums. Once hailed as a modern torchbearer for guitar-based rock music, Cloud Nothings are only adding fuel to the steadily growing “rock is dead”-think piece fire with Life Without Sound.