Album Review: Cloud Nothings – The Shadow I Remember

[Carpark; 2021]

The 2010s were a tumultuous time for Cloud Nothings’ Dylan Baldi. At the start of the decade, his lo-fi solo bedroom project caught early attention, and in 2011 his first proper album, Cloud Nothings, was released to mild excitement. It wasn’t until bringing in Steve Albini for the follow-up, 2012’s Earth-shattering Attack on Memory, that Cloud Nothings as we know it started to really take shape. The winning formula of post-hardcore-meets-emo was replicated perfectly with Here and Nowhere Else in 2014.

After lightning struck twice, the next few years saw them going in more experimental directions, which received mixed responses, before their random quarantine ’emo’ album. With new record The Shadow I Remember, Cloud Nothings look to do another revamp of their sound – except this time they aren’t looking forward, but backward, by pulling Albini back into the fray.

Shadow hopes to reignite the excitement that Cloud Nothings had in the beginning, that’s why Albini is back; to help smooth-out crinkled corners but also to smudge the polish. No matter their intent, 2018’s Last Building Burning seemed to rely on formulaic and controlled experimentation. That album’s long and droning centerpiece tracks that just meandered for minutes that seemed hours in our heads weren’t doing the band any favors, so Shadow thankfully doesn’t bring that concept back. Here we have 10 hits that hardly breach the four-minute mark, while those unnecessary jam sessions are contained to one instrumental cut. Shadow is brisker in scope as a result.

Alas, Baldi still feels like he’s caught in a time-warp, something that was evident on Last Building Burning and continues to run through Shadow. Baldi’s got a lot of pent-up aggression to release and sometimes it manifests in thrilling numbers, best evidenced at the start of the record with “Oslo”. With a dash of wisdom, Baldi ponders age by asking “Am I older now? / Or am I just another age / Am I at the end / Or will there be another change?” He’s clearly looking inward, but the question is kind of funny considering how similar the sound of Shadow is to their best albums. So he’s older now, and he’s learning from his mistakes, so maybe Shadow is representative of a cleansing of sorts.

One noticeable deviation from the script is the presence of Macie Stewart, whose vocals on “Nothing Without You” slice through the snarling and nasal shouts from Baldi. This inclusion feels unique, as typically the only voice we hear directly on a Cloud Nothings record is Baldi’s, but Stewart’s elegance does bolster the track considerably. It’s a moment of brilliance that is needed to reassert the risky nature of Cloud Nothings, but sadly it’s one of few instances of that on Shadow. Regardless of what Baldi wants to promote, Shadow still features a lot of his old tropes, just rearranged – there’s little to distinguish it from the rest of their catalogue.

This is fundamentally what is so discouraging about Cloud Nothings. Once considered daring, they’ve veered towards predictable. It’s hard to believe that the same band who came rocketing out of twee-pop boredom with a catchy anthem like “Stay Useless” can sound so dull and uninspired on the monotonous “It’s Love”, which features erratic and noisy playing for a minute and a half while Baldi grumbles “it’s a hard life.” A lot of what makes Shadow appear like a return to form is how it so eagerly mimics its more successful predecessors. “The Spirit Of” at first sounds like an outcast from those classics, but poorer songwriting shows through on repeat listens.

Shadow isn’t a complete fumble though. When Baldi wants to take Cloud Nothings in fresher territory he succeeds. Songs like “Only Light” find him singing more about hope and less about being pissed off – which goes some way to answering that question about age from “Oslo”. He’s more contemplative here: “I never wanted something more than I could be in this life,” he sings, begging for purpose. He practices his narrative chops on “Nara”, which, with its softer approach, would feel at home on Life Without Sound, although this pitstop in friendlier territory feels a little out of place in the context of the album.

“Open Rain” is another stand out, with its great chorus: “and I want to know it’s true / and I want to see with you.” The natural highlight, “Sound the Alarm”, finds Baldi lyrically striving for a new direction – further proof that the frontman is at odds with himself – as the message becomes “I want to change / but I want to play it safe too.” This is what Shadow largely is, an overtly safe record that leaves one shaking their head – especially at the inclusion of the mundane throwaway track “It’s Love”.

The Shadow I Remember is a confusing exploration of Baldi’s hopes and dreams, which don’t materialize at all. There’s so much to unpack in his words, but he makes it hard to care about them. He wants to know if he’s “something good, or just an unremarkable man” on “Am I Something”, but this soon devolves into hoarse mutterings that do little to showcase any real thought on the subject.

Recently, Cloud Nothings’ 2010 debut release Turning On was reissued to celebrate over its decade anniversary. They’ve come a long way from that sound, but what we have now is lopsided. It’s loud for the sake of being loud, as if Baldi feels like he needs to appease the crowd who dismissed his riskier moves on Life Without Sound by making another Attack on Memory, rather than keep pushing forward.