The thing about being a punk is, you can’t be a punk alone. It’s a designator that hinges on the shunning of, or at least a displeasure towards society. But to be a punk is not only to voice dissatisfaction with the status quo, it is also to align yourself with a group of similarly minded individuals.
But Dylan Baldi, frontman of Cloud Nothings, whose four previous albums have drawn influence from a wide range of punk rock from the 1970s through the 90s, has admitted to being a musical loner growing up; he told Pitchfork he never identified as a punk himself. In fact, when he started Cloud Nothings from his parents’ basement in Ohio, it was a one man show. Over the course of the group’s last few albums, Cloud Nothings have grown from a Dylan Baldi side project to a fully formed and cohesive band. And their fourth studio album, Life Without Sound, is their strongest argument yet for this seamless assimilation.
There are many aspects of this album that point to Baldi’s personal growth and increasing group consciousness. He has said the album’s title refers to the realization of something important missing, a part you didn’t realize you were missing until it’s there. “Generally, it seems like my work has been about finding my place in the world.”
This matured self-awareness is evident in the lyrics as well. On 2012’s Attack on Memory, Baldi is more defeatist and frustrated, screaming “I thought I would be more than this”. On 2014’s more energetic Here and Nowhere Else, he seems to be moving toward some sort of realization, but the majority of agency and importance still rests on himself : “I’m learning how to be here and nowhere else/ How to focus on what I can do myself.”
Flash forward to Life Without Sound and you hear Baldi in the chorus of the album’s third track, “Internal World”, crooning “I’m not the one who’s always right” several times over. With their latest album, it seems Baldi has taken a step back and learned to rely more on the combined power of the band’s talent as a whole.
And sonically, this has proven to be a revelation for the group. Their sound has expanded, with the inclusion of a second guitarist turning the trio into a quartet. The band is now made up of Baldi as lead singer and guitarist, drummer Jayson Gerycz, bassist TJ Duke, and guitarist Chris Brown. The result is an album that is fast-paced, full-bodied, and depicts a band that has confidently hit its stride.
The album opener, “Up to the Surface”, is a gradual build-up on this theme. It begins with a solitary piano riff, followed by the sly introduction of guitars and a distant melody, all of which builds into a crescendo of music that melds disparate parts into a percussive whole.
Things pick up from there, with the full-throttle “Things Are Right With You” and later “Sight Unseen”. In fact it’s the album’s second half that best demonstrates Cloud Nothings’ classic punk rock roots, with volatile guitar and thrashing drums. But even the tumultuous moments on this album show a new level of control. “Strange Year” takes several erratic turns, moving from deliberate guitar picking to full blown sonic chaos within the first few bars. But it rides out the disheveled climax, returning to a more restrained break, then veering back again into turbulence. But despite the change of tempo, there’s an underlying intention to the whole thing.
The album closer, “Realize My Fate”, brings the album full circle. It’s a contemplative slow burn of a song that sees Baldi returning to his inability to accept the inevitable. To some, it may sound like regression, reneging on all the emotional progress built up throughout the album. But I would argue that it’s a logical conclusion; whether alone or part of a group, the yearning and search of purpose of existential crises remains.
Life Without Sound builds on the already impressive groundwork laid by Cloud Nothings’ past three studio albums, but proves how strong the band is as the sum of its parts. It seems as though Dylan Baldi has effectively evolved from a musical loner trying to go it alone to a mature frontman fully integrated in a strong and cohesive band. It seems as though Dylan Baldi has finally become a punk. B