Eleven years into Cloud Nothings’ recording career, it’s easy to imagine singer, songwriter and sole founder Dylan Baldi perpetually balancing atop the sharp part of a knife when he’s making music.
On one side of the knife is a serrated edge, lined with jagged teeth designed to tear apart just about anything they encounter. This side includes aggressive Cloud Nothings albums like 2012’s Attack on Memory, 2014’s Here and Nowhere Else and especially 2018’s noticeably pissed-off Last Building Burning.
On the other side is a butter knife’s edge, smooth and dependable and ready to spread one good thing (catchy melodies) on another good thing (jangling guitars). Over here, you’ll find the homemade pop of Cloud Nothings’ self-titled 2011 debut, 2017’s relatively expansive Life Without Sound and last year’s The Black Hole Understands, a quarantine album made by sending music files back and forth between two cities.
To be clear, the aesthetic gap between the first group and the second is about as wide as … well, a knife. Across seven full-length albums, Baldi and his bandmates—drummer Jayson Gerycz, bassist TJ Duke and guitarist Chris Brown—have been a model of consistency, staying more or less in their punky pop-rock lane even as they veered back and forth between the lines, exploring the possibilities of the form. Along the way, they’ve built one of the most reliable indie-rock catalogs of the past decade; ask five fans to name their favorite Cloud Nothings album, and you’ll probably get at least three different answers, and maybe five.
The band’s new effort, The Shadow I Remember, fits snugly into that catalog. Written and recorded before The Black Hole Understands, the album squeezes 11 songs into 33 minutes, with plenty of space for little experiments and faithful rockers. Most notable is track two, “Nothing Without You,” a buzzy toe-tapper that features piano on the second verse and, in the chorus, a guest vocal from Ohmme’s Macie Stewart that positively leaps from the speakers. Piano also bubbles up in the album’s opener, “Oslo,” a slow-burner that sounds like a bout of post-pandemic anxiety even though it was written and recorded before COVID-19 turned life upside down: “The world I know has gone away,” Baldi sings as the song builds. “An outline of my own decay.”
Even as Cloud Nothings’ sound has seesawed over the years, Baldi’s lyrical themes have remained constant: frustration, fear, confusion, self-doubt, regret and all the shades in between. On The Shadow I Remember, he does a lot of waiting and wanting and wondering, both for himself and for others. “Who do you wanna be? What do you wanna go further for? If only I knew,” he sings on “Nara,” an understated tune with a droning tone for a backbone. Later, he seems to be having a quarter-life crisis, worrying that he’s wasted his life as grimy guitars corkscrew through “Am I Something” and repeating a self-care mantra—“I need to make time for me, to believe in what I can be”—in “Sound of Alarm,” a highlight of the album’s second half.
Because this is a Cloud Nothings album, all the songs are pretty good or better, with the possible exception of the 92-second “It’s Love,” which feels slight and probably could’ve been cut. But the standout is the penultimate track, “A Longer Moon,” precisely because it finds the band stretching out a bit. There’s a long instrumental intro (that showcases Gerycz’s considerable skills behind the drums), a short and evocative vocal section, and then the song’s second half blasts off into a sort of eccentric math-rock jam, complete with cosmic whooshes and zip-zap synths provided by electronic musician Brett Naucke.
It’s a weird and cool three minutes tucked into the end of another perfectly solid Cloud Nothings record that expertly straddles that imaginary knife Baldi was balancing on earlier. There aren’t too many musicians who do that as effortlessly as he does, and we get a lot of good rock ‘n’ roll as a result. But here’s hoping that one of these days, he jumps off—feet first, with gusto—into the unknown.
Ben Salmon is a committed night owl with an undying devotion to discovering new music. He lives in the great state of Oregon, where he hosts a killer radio show and obsesses about Kentucky basketball from afar. Ben has been writing about music for more than two decades, sometimes for websites you’ve heard of but more often for alt-weekly papers in cities across the country. Follow him on Twitter at @bcsalmon.