The Shadow I Remember
The future is terrifying. Anything you can imagine probably isn’t quite as bad as the reality. But here I am imagining a world of deep fake music, a future where you can take a band’s catalogue and recycle thousands of little moments into totally new songs. I’m imagining it because, if you were such a nefarious creator, Cloud Nothings wouldn’t be a bad place to start. Their formula just begs for cheap imitation because, well, they’ve established a pretty consistent blueprint: Take some pointed repetition, an endless deluge of gargled and spit-out pop hooks, more than a little X-Acto-knife drumming, and a see-saw oscillation between hope and nihilism and you could do a half-assed approximation of much of songwriter Dylan Baldi’s vast catalogue under the moniker. That’s not to say they repeat themselves to a fault, but, as goes the saying, wherever they go, there they are. So why continue, ten years and some seven records on? It’s a question Baldi seems to wrestle with throughout The Shadow I Remember and the answer, it turns out, is to make perhaps the best, most comprehensive Cloud Nothings album yet.
“The world I know has gone away,” goes the opening line of the group’s seventh album. Ah, yes, this is the perfect COVID album. The story writes itself. Except for the fact that this was written and recorded last February. Despite this, there is a good deal of personal reckoning going on here, as Baldi looks backward and forward with equal apprehension, wary but intent on restocking his existential shelves. “Am I at the end, or will there be another change?” Baldi asks on the opener and de facto thesis statement “Oslo,” a slowly boiling pot of feedback and hysteria.
“What do you wanna go further for?” he asks later on the tight, refreshingly airy “Nara” only to double-down on nihilist musings with the harsher, imposter-syndrome fever dream “Am I Something.” Questions may litter the lyrics sheet, but there is something concrete and certain about this record as well, as if the asking is more than half the battle. The breakneck speed of Cloud Nothings’ music and career leaves little room for introspection. Baldi may not have written or recorded this album during our indefinite global hiatus, but he may have gotten a head start on his own existential crisis.
The answer to all this searching seems to be a bit of a looser grip and a willingness to mess around a bit more freely than before. Last year’s actual pandemic record The Black Hole Understands—written after The Shadow I Remember and during the depths of quarantine—saw Baldi slide back into the kind of bedroom rock he hasn’t done in years, but you can see the blueprint for that a bit here. One of the truly breakthrough moments comes on “Nothing Without You,” a jolt provided by Macie Stewart of Chicago experimental rockers Ohmme. Cloud Nothings have never, in their decade long existence, featured a guest vocalist, but rather than jarring, it feels almost eerily familiar to find Stewart trading blows with Baldi atop a frisky, pounding arrangement as they do here.
Overall, The Shadow I Remember is less a bold new statement than a wily repurposing of former selves while, at the same, whittling away what no longer fits. Cloud Nothings is a band with an almost preternatural ability to do what works, but sometimes a new perspective is just as useful as a new direction.