The camera descended upon a dim stage and a four piece band, lit only by a projector displaying glitches and digital noise, gliding off the pickguards and drumkit. A jagged riff laced with ennui broke the silence.
“The world I know has gone away.”
So began Cloud Nothings’ record release live stream of the new album The Shadow I Remember. The lyrics of opening track “Oslo” feel like a timely, gravel-throated reflection of the sort we’ve come to depend on through 12 years of what was once miscategorized as a bedroom project by frontman Dylan Baldi. The consistent output in the years since has generated a prolific catalogue of songcraft that is both singular and infused with influences from indie rocks heyday: catchy, dissonant, heartfelt gems like the ones ’90s college kids used to dub onto mixtapes and CDRs by lo-fi powerhouses like Pavement, Sebadoh and Guided by Voices.
Now firmly in the band’s second decade, Baldi’s tortured existentialism is showing its age by critiquing its very concept: “Am I older now or just another age?” Now into the second year of a global pandemic, where the meaning of time has become slippery anyway, things can get heavy when facing an uncertain future and the search for meaning feels like it’s either been put on hold, or has ceased to be relevant. But Baldi is taking stock of things: “Am I something good? Or just an unremarkable man,” from “Am I Something,” is one of many moments in the album where Baldi is using this pause in time to take a step back to look at the whole picture, which happens to be seen through a mirror.
In the streaming world, sadly, a concert of this flavor of rock can’t result in beersoaked singalongs, but this one came close to capturing the general vibe. Shot with few frills and no digital flourishes (thank god), the approach stayed true to the music by performing in Clevand’s Grog Shop. They played straight through the album, and nothing else. There were no guitar changes, no synthesizers, piano, or extra vocals like on the album itself, swell as no banter, just a few seconds here and there to tune. It was as stripped down and as utilitarian as you can get without sacrificing melodic richness and harmonic depth. And it did the trick.
There was also little time to breathe. The second song, “Nothing Without You,” was punctuated with syncopated bursts that cut far more prominently through the mix than in the studio version, the rapidly building end making a tight transition into “The Spirit Of.” Jangly, repetitive leads through the verses dropped down on the chorus to a thick mush of mid-tones, bottomed with a determined bassline that cast resolve into the heart as Baldi’s vocals growled an urgent ache to get out at all costs. The despair reached a breaking point at the end of the song, before it transitioned into the oddly optimistic “Only Light,” where Baldi pines for the one who will make him want to change the world, which he literally claims he will do once she arrives: “Then I would change the world.” The sing-song way he proclaims the words makes one suspect whether they are sincere, or clad in non-committal irony, as if he’s afraid to be caught expressing such sweet sentiment, yet unwilling to let it go unsaid, but not without including contingent disappointment as a caveat.
The raw, angular aggression of the set only gave into reflective musing for short stints. No extended stoner dirges here. The primped studio recordings sound almost like a different band by comparison, which isn’t to say the stream wasn’t incredibly tight. In fact, the rawness was a nice side to see. So many streaming album releases have been attempts at faithful recreations of their source, and it’s nice to see this one didn’t bother. The rawness made it feel more live, and Baldi’s primal scream perfectly expresses the frustration that people can’t be right there screaming along with him. Of course, people could scream at their computer screens along with him, but with so many of us already screaming at our computer screens anyway, it might be better to save it for when it can be shared with a like-minded crowd.
Photo Credit: Brad Padelford