Cloud Nothings has always felt like a perpetual work in progress. With each record, the Dylan Baldi-led group takes incremental steps forward, building on its influences—peach-fuzz power pop, scabrous post-hardcore, and furious punk aggression—and creating something more refined and confident. It’s no coincidence that Cloud Nothings’ music is also deeply restless, although Baldi’s songwriting has never forsaken focus or confidence in the name of such uncertainty.
That’s still the case on the band’s compulsively listenable fifth album, Life Without Sound. The record’s lyrics describe scenes of vivid disorientation: feeling uncomfortable in your own skin, losing everything important to you, bone-deep loneliness, and gradual emotional collapse. Yet Life Without Sound’s overall thematic arc involves soldiering through these personal hells, and finding the strength to stay positive and start again. These seemingly conflicting states of being often overlap and coexist (“I knew peace in the terror of the mind,” Baldi sings at one point), which only adds to the complexity.
Musically, Life Without Sound also reflects this depth. Nineties indie rock is once again a major influence—standout “Internal World” is unraveling, Weezer-esque grunge; “Enter Entirely” has the kind of laissez-faire vibe favored by Pavement; and the spring-loaded “Modern Act” resembles Archers Of Loaf. But the album’s songs are more layered and expansive. With producer John Goodmanson (Sleater-Kinney, Blonde Redhead) at the helm, dense rock songs such as “Sight Unseen” and “Things Are Right With You” balance clarion melodies and corrugated rough edges. Opening song “Up To The Surface,” meanwhile, starts with nothing but mournful piano before segueing into a sighing minor key.
More than anything, Life Without Sound finds Cloud Nothings refusing to fall into a rut. That’s most evident on the ferocious highlight “Darkened Rings,” a snarling, post-hardcore pipe bomb that crescendos and speeds up until Baldi is screaming himself desperate and hoarse. Such sharp ferocity recalls 2012’s Attack On Memory, although “Darkened Rings” possesses taut aggression that’s far more deliberate than the band’s previous punk barbs. Life Without Sound is the next logical step in Cloud Nothings’ upward trajectory.