Attack on Memory may be the second official Cloud Nothings full-length, but it’s easier and more accurate to recognize it as an artistic rebirth. When pressed to take his one-man indie-rock bedroom project on the road last year, Dylan Baldi recruited an ad-hoc live band; apparently sensing potential in their on-stage energy, something lying dormant in his songs sprung anew. Invigorated by and confident in their camaraderie, the reconstituted Cloud Nothings approached former Big Black/Shellac frontman Steve Albini to bottle the lightning they had stumbled upon. And it’s that immediacy which defines Attack on Memory, a spiritual commencement down once familiar sonic byways but one which now feels almost alien amidst a synth-addled, emotionally ambiguous independent music landscape.
Opener “No Future/No Past” aptly defines the experience: Attack on Memory feels timeless—in as much as it could have emerged at almost any point during the preceding 30-year indie-rock continuum—but it also plays as resolutely current, as if the bracing energy of the band is being conjured before your ears, in real time, with each successive spin. This is indie-rock in the present tense, joining a lineage of similarly exhilarating, of-the-moment acts whose functionality transcends trend-spotting and calendar year considerations, acts such as Superchunk, Wipers, Sunny Day Real Estate, Walt Mink, Rites of Spring, Jawbreaker, and Archers of Loaf. But in the case of Cloud Nothings Mk 2, it’s not enough to simply point at aesthetic influence—at this point it’s assumed that record collections are anchored by the classics. More importantly, across the tight, chiseled 33 minute advance of Attack on Memory, Baldi’s songwriting consistently evidences a tangible personality, lunging forth with grandly therapeutic exhortations, intimately detailed scenes of personal indictment, and throat-shredding displays of self-conscious comeuppance. Some people used to call this emo.
It’s that easily identifiable persona which ultimately resonates deepest, and it’s to the band’s credit that they sought the services of Mr. Albini, who, per tradition, leaves his collaborators uncommonly exposed and vulnerable, close-mic’ing Baldi’s vocals while freeing them from the reverb used as a crutch on past Cloud Nothings recordings. The results are immediately apparent in the triumphant build of the somehow simultaneously compact and epic “No Future/No Past,” which escalates methodically, slowly adding riffs and fills to its gathering piano and bass melody before Baldi ignites the band into a mantra-like pronouncement of the titular epithet. This thesis statement soon yields to an even bolder employment of the ideal with “Wasted Days,” an expansive, nine minute Youth of America-nodding onslaught of circular guitar motifs and headlong percussion. The lyrics are stripped, basic admissions: “I know my life’s not gonna change”; “I thought I would be more than this”; “Getting tired of living ‘til I die.” But amidst the churning maelstrom, Baldi imbues these adolescent trappings with real sentiment, selling universal feelings as if he’s the only one in the world to ever feel useless.
And the straight pop moves have made the transition in tact as well. “Fall In” is one of the year’s most immediate, anthemic sing-a-longs, filling a void that Oxford Collapse left free for the taking after splitting a couple years back, while “Stay Useless” vividly captures that lonely feeling of youthful transience, the ever-fluctuating insouciance that imbues the most negligible but seemingly vital moments of teenage life. When Baldi’s voice stretches to reach a range he only wished he had with his final declaration of “I need tiii-I-ime,” you’ll know instantly if this stuff is hardwired into your DNA or simply juvenilalia given an amplifier. It’s a similar approach he takes to much more intense lengths on “No Sentiment,” the album’s heaviest and most thoroughly enervated track. Atop an appropriately thundering low-end march, Baldi throws down a proud, liberating manifesto: “No nostalgia / No sentiment / We’re over it now / We were over it then / We forget what you do / We don’t care what we lose.” It would play as strictly ignorant if Baldi didn’t sound so self-consciously secure with this attitude—or if the band didn’t provoke Baldi with such a powerful, engulfing instrumental bedlam.
The final two tracks, however, are what have kept me returning to Attack on Memory so consistently over the last couple months. Both “Our Plans” and “Cut You” are the record’s most melodically and thematically complex songs, and after the more turbulent waters that the preceding two tracks swim in, they work as a cognizant reestablishment of interpersonal and potentially physical consequence. The former is one of the few times on this record that we find Baldi looking past the immediacy of the moment, however tentatively, and there’s a tinge of foreboding as he sings, “No one knows our plans for us / It won’t be long.” The latter, meanwhile, is easily the most outwardly emotional track of the set, and one that skirts perilously close to blood-letting over-commitment (“Can he be as mean as me? / Can he cut you in your sleep?”). It probably wouldn’t work anywhere else on Attack on Memory, and any more tracks like it would simply offer too much disclosure, but on the final track the couplet jabs with a bitterness and entitlement anyone who’s ever experienced just a tinge of jealousy can identify with.
Most importantly, moments like these lend Attack on Memory a critical sense of repercussion. Not only have Cloud Nothings and Albini paired the band’s sound down to its most essential elements, but Baldi's brought an equal urgency and earnest, palpable strain of growing confidence as a songwriter. It’s all unexpectedly added up to a band now greater than the sum of its constituent parts and, more excitingly for listeners burnt out on obfuscation and ambiguity, the year’s first great indie-rock record. [InRO]