Music Reviews

A Return to Basics Is Forward Progress on THE BLACK HOLE UNDERSTANDS


Genre: Indie Rock

Favorite Tracks: “The Story I Live,” “The Sound Of Everyone,” “Average World”

Dylan Baldi is always trying to move forward. If you take a look at his career with Cloud Nothings, it’s as if the band is programmed to never stay in one place for too long. Their breakout record ATTACK ON MEMORY and its successor HERE AND NOWHERE ELSE were built upon a hostile rebellion against the solo, pop-centered releases Baldi had released before. Then, their hyper-focused self-deprecation and aggressive riffs were swapped out for something a little more contemplative and shiny on LIFE WITHOUT SOUND. Then there was that album with Wavves. In 2018, Baldi decided that he was pissed off again and released LAST BUILDING BURNING, which featured harder and faster playing that, at times, felt like a dialed-in attempt to recreate some of the moments from the earlier full-band records; even if it wasn’t a full return to form, it was a welcome look back towards some of the components that had made the band so great in the first place.

So as the country crumbles around us, where do Cloud Nothings look in 2020? THE BLACK HOLE UNDERSTANDS found Baldi working within the restrictions of a quarantine lockdown, back in the bedroom setting he actively tried to distance himself from for the past decade. The album features Baldi handling all guitar and bass work, with longtime drummer Jayson Gerycz behind the kit and mixing board. The duo built their latest from Baldi’s riffs recorded on Garageband using built-in guitar modules, and traded updated mixes via email. The result is the cleanest and most melodic Cloud Nothings record to date.

Within a few seconds of starting album opener “Story That I Live,” I was immediately transported back behind the mixing board of my college radio station, where I was first introduced to the band with the track “On The Radio.” The crisp, raw guitar tones were far removed from the more produced sounds the band has been utilizing since ATTACK ON MEMORY. Then Baldi begins singing softly, and it becomes obvious that this will be a very different Cloud Nothings listening experience. One familiar element that is quickly revealed is that Baldi can still fit an endless amount of catchy melodic hooks into one song. The first refrain in “Story That I Live” finds him lamenting “I cannot believe what I have done” in true bummer boy fashion, but just when you’re ready to sing along after the second verse, he completely abandons it for an equally infectious, self-deprecating line in “Things don’t happen for a reason / Or not one I believe in.” The album features Baldi’s most delicate vocal performances to date, with rich harmonizing and the occasional falsetto. While it is reminiscent of TURNING ON or the self-titled record, THE BLACK HOLE UNDERSTANDS benefits from Gerycz’s drumming and Baldi’s more experienced songwriting.

The songs here are tight and concise, utilizing more straightforward song arrangements. There are no seven-minute barn-burners like “Wasted Days” or “Pattern Walks,” but the delicate disdain put forth in “The Sound of Everyone” when Baldi begs “go where you never have to see me” cuts almost as deep as the self-hatred presented in either of the aforementioned tracks. THE BLACK HOLE UNDERSTANDS is a pretty sad record, but it’s not all doom and gloom with Baldi this time around. “The Sound of Everyone” features one of the more hopeful choruses in Cloud Nothings’ discography (“Life won’t always be this way / Something’s gonna happen when you wait a little longer”) before ending on the almost mandatory bummer note.

The anger that has often walked hand-in-hand with the sadness of Cloud Nothings has transitioned into an acceptance. “The Mess Is Permanent” finds Baldi acknowledging that the current state of things is indeed our fault and may be irreversible, but the real focus is on the ending where he wishes he could write for us “where everybody is light.” The following track “Right on the Edge,” which has one of the catchiest choruses and guitar leads on the record, again combines Baldi’s cynicism with a new glass-quarter-full perspective; instead of focusing on the loneliness that comes with choosing to live life separated from the crowd, he realizes that “I’ve loved and I have left what I wanted to protect.” This balance of melancholy and optimism seems to be a direct result of the recording restrictions. When equipment and space are limited, the expression is changed.

The title track that closes the album features the only segment of the record I didn’t care for, where the form of the vocal melody of the verses comes off as slightly silly in nature, but it’s worth it to get to the chorus, which is full of sweet harmonies and competing vocal lines. “Tall Gray Structure” is a pretty groovy instrumental, the first since “Separation” on ATTACK ON MEMORY. Baldi’s bass playing is on point here, as it is throughout the album, but you can’t help but think its inclusion on the record would have been more meaningful with vocals. THE BLACK HOLE UNDERSTANDS has shades of those early Cloud Nothings records, but it is not a purely nostalgic take on the bedroom pop that brought the band to our attention in the first place. It’s an example of a band built on progression working with what they have in a unique set of circumstances and seeing where they land. And they’ve landed in a damn good spot.

Jake Mazon
Jake Mazon is the host of The Final Sound radio program on VPN, as well as a co-host on THE REAL ROCKER THEATER and WHAT'S YOUR RECORD? podcasts. There's a really good chance that he's already read the new article about what offensive thing Morrissey said this week, so please stop sending him the links.

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