By Alex Szeptycki
Cloud Nothings’ latest effort is less muscular than their previous work, but it still contains its fair share of hooky bliss.
For the latter half of their career, Cloud Nothings have been wisps of fresh air. As rock ‘n’ roll has suffered through one of its longest and most intense identity crises, the Cleveland band has answered the call by…playing rock ‘n’ roll. Loudly. They have been brash and refreshingly straightforward, whipping out breakneck riffs and shouted choruses at the service of frenetic and conflicted lyrics. On The Black Hole Understands, however, the band seems to have dialed back. They sound cleaner; there’s less noise in the mix and their riffs are noticeably quieter. Cloud Nothings comes off as a bit dissipated this time around, less energetic, content to let loose a series of hooky, angst-flavored songs.
From the very first note, you can hear something different in The Black Hole Understands. In previous albums, each guitar bristled with muddy aggression, and every track was an exercise in barely controlled chaos. “Story That I Live,” on the other hand, opens crisply and clearly. It’s driven by a jangly guitar run that never strays from the tune’s steady beat. This song knows exactly where it’s going, slickly progressing with natural ease through vivacious passages and choruses. In contrast, frontman Dylan Baldi is overcome with existential dread, lamenting “Who wrote the story that I live/This ain’t the ending I had wanted.” Edge is added to what is an otherwise brightly colored song. It’s an uncomplicated opener – and a prophecy of things to come.
The reason for the band’s change is not clear. Were these changes driven by stylistic choices? A matter of commercial necessity? Frontman Baldi, guitarist Chris Brown, bassist TJ Duke, and drummer Jayson Gerycz built the album through email — they sent sound files back and forth over months of the lockdown. As a result, the album presents an oddly insular, “pure” version of studio recording. Even discordant moments, like the spiraling breakdown on “An Average World,” come off as more measured than chaotic. Ironically, the band unified over long distance, creating a sound that is cohesive and compact.
The upshot is that Cloud Nothings has embraced restraint and made a success of the altered approach. Yes, the band sounds less adventurous, but they make up for it by supplying simpler, catchy tracks. “A Silent Reaction” is an infectious tale of dysfunction; Baldi rambles through a series of relationship frustrations without seeming to fully care about them. It’s hard not to hear “quarantine ennui” in the muted line “I haven’t seen you in days/you’re staying so far away.” The singer doesn’t have the emotional bandwidth to deal with personal conflicts. Still, as the guitars swell, Baldi begins to show signs of life, boiling over via a screamed chorus, “I’ll look when you go away this time.” The modulated emotional turmoil compliments the band’s commitment to a confined musical space.
Cloud Nothings holds on to one aspect of their identity: the band writes intensely enjoyable choruses. Previously, they served as oases of calm in a whirlwind of noise and angst. Here, they’re the centerpieces. “Right on The Edge” features continuous escalation: competitive dueling guitars try to outmatch each other while Gerycz lays into his crash cymbals without remorse. When the chorus finally comes, it’s a release valve, dispersing the pressure with ease. When Baldi shouts that “I’m right on the edge/of the world and I’m walking off,” he demands that you shout along with him.
Spellbinding hooks even manage to save some of the weaker selections on the tracklist. “A Weird Interaction” works as a song solely on the strong back of its chorus. It’s a breakup song that moves forward at a plodding pace — there is no instrumental pizazz. Still, once the chorus hits and guitars wail over Baldi’s stuttering dirge “I don’t feel like I know you at all,” the intended melancholy yet manic note finally arrives.
In fact, the album’s worst moments occur when the band’s cohesion and songwriting acumen aren’t able to save instrumental shortcomings. As catchy as The Black Hole Understands is, artful restraint turns at times into anemia. “Tall Gray Structure” holds the most disappointing spot on the tracklist. It clings to a conventional rock progression, albeit without lyrics. The heavy, slow arrangement isn’t interesting enough to stand on its own; the tune has an unfinished air about it. “Memory of Regret” suffers from a similar lack of gumption. The music doesn’t seem to know where it is going, to the point that the meandering becomes aimless.
Something intensely fraught lurks within the hooky bliss of The Black Hole Understands, and it binds the album together. Powerful emotions seethes throughout the tracklist: jubilation, anger, existential angst. This disturbs the band’s straightforward, upbeat bed of rock ‘n’ roll, twists and complicates it. Take the closing track, “The Black Hole Understands.” It’s a party song for the coming apocalypse. The band pushes their instruments to the brink, generating a harmonious cacophony that’s only matched by Baldi’s cheery warnings of cosmic doom. “The black hole is waiting for you,” he yells, but not before he congratulates the listener: “You finally notice, nothing is the point of it all.” This line is at the beating heart of Cloud Nothings. They face down dread — that nothing matters, that breakups are empty, the gloom of tragedy, and now the end of days — with a blazing riff and a wry smile. Its attitude of “existentialism is a humanism” is run through rock ‘n’ roll’s blender. Their resilience is muted on this album, but Cloud Nothings is still battling the appeal of nothingness.
Alex Szeptycki is a student from Charlottesville, Virginia, currently studying at Stanford University. He is majoring in American Studies, with a focus in Contemporary Art and Media. He is currently finishing up his senior year, before looking to pursue a career in writing or the arts.