Has an album ever defied your expectations and, in doing so, surpassed your highest hopes? It doesn’t happen very often. Kid A? Sure. Blonde? Maybe. 808s & Heartbreak? I guess. But for me, one of the most inspired left turns in music history belongs to Cloud Nothings, the rare 21st century rock band to seize their moment not by going pop or getting weird but by ramping up the blistering aggression.
At first, “band” was the wrong word for this project; the earliest Cloud Nothings recordings were solo efforts by Case Western freshman Dylan Baldi, who’d been spending his weekends recording music in his parents’ basement in nearby Westlake and uploading them to MySpace under various guises. But one of those MySpace pages made its way to influential Brooklyn concert promoter Todd P, who invited Baldi to open for the buzzy indie bands Woods and Real Estate at Market Hotel in Bushwick, at which point Cloud Nothings became a band by necessity. A few months later, I saw them live for the first time at Skylab, a live-in artists’ loft, gallery, and performance space on the fifth floor of a downtown Columbus building.
At that point, they didn’t seem sure what kind of band they were trying to be. Turning On, a mini-album comprising the home recordings that launched Baldi out of obscurity, was a treasure trove of bashed-out lo-fi pop-rock, both prodigiously catchy and bracingly physical. Baldi’s songs crackled, and not just because the tracks were so often in the red. Be they wildly energetic like “Can’t Stay Awake” or hypnotically droning like “Hey Cool Kid,” there was a contagious vigor about them that I found undeniable. Cloud Nothings seemed like they could be the second coming of Guided By Voices — something we proud Ohioans had long been searching for. But at Skylab, their set was a different kind of chaos than GBV are known for, and not necessarily the good kind of chaos. As a unit, these kids were still a work in progress.
In the studio, Cloud Nothings continued to be a Baldi solo project. Working in Baltimore with producer Chester Gwazda, Baldi conceived a brighter, poppier version of what he’d been doing at home. There were still some raw outbursts like the one in “Not Important,” and his songs continued to brim with twitchy energy beneath the polish. Yet 2011’s Cloud Nothings put his pop craftsmanship front and center, applying a subtle dreamy sheen to the music. It put Cloud Nothings on a trajectory toward softer edges, broader accessibility, maybe even one of those awkward indie-goes-pop crossover attempts that were all the rage in the 2010s. And then they pivoted violently in the opposite direction, and it ruled.
Attack On Memory, released 10 years ago today, was a profound shift away from the post-chillwave zeitgeist and a declaration of war on people’s preconceptions about Cloud Nothings. “I wanted to make it apparent that it’s an attack on the memory of what people thought the band was,” Baldi explained in the weeks leading up to the album’s release. “Most of the record came from my desire to write stuff that hit harder than anything we’d done. It also came out of a gradual understanding of how to showcase the individual strengths of my band members — a straightforward pop song is not the best way to use each musician to their fullest potential.”
This was central to the album’s appeal: Attack On Memory deployed Baldi’s bandmates in the studio for the first time, most crucially Jayson Gerycz, who shellacked his drums with beastly force at incomprehensible speeds. Amplifying the impact of every pummeling thwack was Steve Albini, who applied his signature scraping, visceral minimalism at Electrical Audio in Chicago between games of online Scrabble. Albini’s no-frills production style is the equivalent of a portrait that reveals every wrinkle and scar. He captures audio with such clarity that all the grit and immediacy of the performance comes through in the finished product. You can hear the physicality in every fervent strum and piercing rasp. Even the catchiest tracks feel encrusted with gravel and debris — hence Rolling Stone‘s declaration that “Fall In” approximates “Green Day if they were thick-necked Midwestern noise heathens.”
This was a striking makeover, but simply hiring Albini is not enough to put your album in the same league as Surfer Rosa and In Utero. Like those albums, Attack On Memory boasted daring, dynamic songwriting; having mastered and then grown bored of compact guitar-pop tracks, Baldi started messing around with unusual structures, lengthy runtimes, and an overall uglier palette of sounds, which thematically dovetailed with the self-loathing negativity that dominates the album’s lyrics. Also like the Pixies and Nirvana, Baldi was too gifted with melody not to slip some killer choruses into tracks like “Our Plans” and the deceptively chipper “Stay Useless.” But he made sure to emphasize his newfound aggression by putting the two most abrasive and despairing songs up front: first the groaning, churning, melody-eschewing slow burn “No Future, No Past,” with its eerie piano and creeping bass and explosive finale, then the Wipers-inspired nine-minute epic “Wasted Days,” racing forward into oblivion at breathtaking speed. The irony of a transcendent album about futility was never more apparent than when the band’s most gripping song to date climaxed with Baldi screaming “I thought I would be more than this!”
No one saw this metamorphosis coming. Just ask Tom Johnson, whose review for Gold Flake Paint begins, “Hands up who saw this coming? Nope, didn’t think so.” The lede from Tom Hughes at The Guardian echoed that sentiment: “The second proper album from Ohio’s Cloud Nothings presents a band transformed.” At The A.V. Club, Steven Hyden noted that Attack On Memory “is about as far removed from the sugary pop-punk of last year’s Cloud Nothings as heroin is from Mountain Dew.” At Pitchfork, Hyden’s future podcasting partner Ian Cohen wrote, “The overhaul is radical,” before declaring the album “a corrective for indie rock making allowances for everything except music that actually rocks.”
That last bit of context is important. As Chris Martins elaborated in Spin, “In evolutionary terms, the march of indie rock into the 21st century has been largely monkey-to-man; it’s rare that a young act with pop promise takes a hard left at ape and winds up on all fours, a lion instead.” Cloud Nothings have never been trend-chasers, and once the surprise of their transformation wore off, the hype surrounding them cooled off significantly. Somewhere after 2014’s equally incendiary Here And Nowhere Else, a lot of people starting taking Baldi’s band for granted.
That hasn’t stopped him from carving out a deeply rewarding catalog — recently beefed up by a steady stream of releases for his subscribers on Bandcamp — and it hasn’t diminished Cloud Nothings’ power as a live band in the slightest. Just a few months ago I caught them at Atlanta’s Shaky Knees festival, where their command of the stage stood in stark contrast to that haphazard performance I witnessed all those years ago. In keeping with the group’s workmanlike consistency, there were no theatrics, no superstar preening, just four guys ripping through one stellar rock song after another. When the set inevitably climaxed with a torrid “Wasted Days,” that old disappointed refrain hit differently with 10 years of hindsight. But holy shit was it still thrilling.