Music, like all other forms of art, has an ability to affect us at our most basic emotional level. Music has a feeling, an almost tactile sensation, which can allow us to experience the world in new and interesting ways. In its new album, “Life Without Sound,” Cloud Nothings conveys the melancholic emotions trademark of indie rock music but does not ultimately rely on genre tropes.
Since its beginning in the 1990s, indie music has come a long way. From roots in classic rock and folk music, indie rock has cultivated large communities of fans through classic five-piece instrumentation and a wide variety of styles and sub-genres. Cloud Nothings takes its inspiration from noise rock and the post-hardcore and post-punk music of the 1980s and ’90s. Heavy use of strumming and vocals occupy an important place in “Life Without Sound,” deriving from these popular and influential forms of rock. Cloud Nothings borrows from this heritage, gesturing back to Nirvana and Sonic Youth with a heavy emphasis on guitar and semi-obscured vocals. Lead singer and guitarist Dylan Baldi is unafraid to use loud growling vocals reminiscent of his punk music roots, which gives the album a harder, grittier quality.
Considering the album as a cohesive unit, the contrast between lighter and heavier songs provides pleasant diversity. It works especially to the advantage of the lighter and more pop-style tunes of the album, like “Modern Act.” This song in particular bubbles with palpable energy and uses a fast beat to great effect.
Although the vocals and the lyrics of the music have been Cloud Nothings’ strong suit historically, in this album, they fall flat. The loud guitar and powerful beat has a tendency to obscure the meaning and power of the lyrics. It ignores the potential for smart, well-written lyrics, and ultimately, the chance to engage with the imagination and emotion of listeners. This detracts from the energy of the beat and dampens the potential of the songs.
However, this does not hold universally over the album. “Modern Act,” for example, discusses the themes of melancholy and anomie with powerful, poetic lyrics as Baldi sings,“When you feel like an ocean / Coming out of a creek / Filling rivers to wait for you / Wherever you are / When you’re out and around / And all you ever see / Are people looking away / It’s nothing new to me.”
The shortcomings of “Life Without Sound” stem from the very techniques which make other parts successful. “Things Are Right With You” and “Internal World,” for example, are traditional indie rock songs, yet are unoriginal and expressional, and will not warrant a second listen.
Although filled with energetic, upbeat tracks, the album touches on somber and melancholy themes. A sense of being lost and unafraid pervades the music. However, in typical indie fashion, the fast-paced guitar arrangement distracts from the substance of the lyrics. The effect of this contrast is a feeling that matches the pace of modern life: There are problems, but the song moves too quickly to really digest them. “Modern Act” and “Strange Year” confront these themes directly, though the lyrical complexity of the song is hard to grasp through an overpowering beat and the guitar.
Indie rock as a whole, and Cloud Nothings in particular, has a problem with homogeneity. Individual songs can succeed with traditional indie rock techniques and instrumentation, but they tend to blur together or sound like one another. With the popularization of electronic instruments and a renewed emphasis on vocals, some types of indie music have recently begun to head in a new direction. Borrowing from rap, rhythm and blues and other genres, these strands of indie rock have the potential to create something new and beautiful. However, instead of reforming their artistic vision to incorporate these new trends, Cloud Nothings is stuck in the past, continuing to release repetitive music. This is not to discredit the quality of good, old-fashioned indie rock. The long and storied tradition of 1980s and 1990s indie music deserves recognition and influence. Nonetheless, it is clear that indie music as a genre needs fresh blood and new ideas. Unfortunately, “Life Without Sound” by Cloud Nothings is more of an homage to the past than an understanding of the future.