It’s hard to avoid reading too much into a record cover when its name is proudly proclaiming an Attack on Memory. It also helps that the 2012 version of Cloud Nothings sounds a lot less like 2011. What was once bittersweet and charmingly affected is now atonal, strung-out and stuck in a dour mood. Downward-spiral guitars, roomy drums, a voice summoned from the depths of Dylan Baldi’s core. Naturally he booked the omnipresent Steve Albini to work behind the boards, essentially the perfect person to snag the ragged noise the band was aiming. When Baldi was asked if we ought to read too much into the title, he said he “wanted to make it apparent that it’s an attack on the memory of what people thought the band was.” Given the complete renovation and isolation from the band’s original sound, he was pretty successful.
If we’re being sincere, Attack on Memory sounds like a record built from the aggressive neuroticism and displaced sexuality of a group of just-out-of-high-school kids in the mid-‘90s. The music would be comfortable opening an early Jimmy Eat World gig—serrated post-hardcore with a swollen heart. But I don’t mean any of that as an insult. Perhaps it’s the rampant ‘90s nostalgia talking, but Cloud Nothings do an impeccable job of capturing the wounded honesty of this music. The wavering boy-girl harmony on “Fall In,” the nine-minute guitar-freakout “Wasted Days,” the murky horrors pinging through “No Future/No Past”—it’s Weezer, it’s The Dismemberment Plan, it’s the freakin’ Get-Up Kids—the best of these sounds, their edges sharpened and packed into eight songs. Long before “alt-rock” became an unfortunate punchline.
The obvious highlight is “Stay Useless” a crackling eruption of hooks. Verse-chorus-verse, an interpretive lyric, a perfect, endlessly repeatable bridge—it’d be an anthem if it had any chance of charting. I love it because it’s written like a rock song, just a really good rock song. Often when you hear a band is integrating on itself, you think synthesizers, or a full orchestra—grand, deliberate statements to differ from the norm—it often gets in the way of the songs. With Cloud Nothings, Baldi simply wrote some rawer tracks, grabbed a legendary producer and played his heart out. At a half-hour it doesn’t overstay its welcome, nor will it remain in your conscious for any extended period of time. However, sometimes something wonderful comes along that won’t force you to estimate how “important” it will sound at year’s end. Attack on Memory is one of those wonderful things.