Album Review: NOTHING – The Great Dismal

[Relapse; 2020]

Philadelphia band Nothing might be the strongest bastion of shoegaze revival in the 2020s, and despite numerous line-up changes, Domenic Palermo has lead them to greater success with each release, but that mega-classic has still not been reached. Nothing doesn’t have a Loveless or Nowhere; they don’t even have a Going Blank Again, though the closest they’ve gotten to that is 2016’s wonderful Tired of Tomorrow. The path to a classic shoegaze album is a tough hill to climb, but with their fourth record The Great Dismal, Nothing inch closer to that possibility.

The Great Dismal is arguably the leanest of the band’s catalog, while also being their most accessible. The addition of label mate Doyle Martin of Cloakroom on support vocals and guitars has added a much-needed layer that was missing from 2018’s Dance on the Blacktop, a good but flawed album. Returning with focus on Dismal, the tandem of Palermo and Martin is a match-made in shoegaze heaven. Martin’s work as frontman to Cloakroom has been celebrated, and the band’s two albums are in league with Nothing’s output as far as quality. This double hitter is crucial to the success of Dismal, as the duo meet in the middle on just about every angle.

Mary Lattimore’s gorgeous strings set the tone on “A Fabricated Life”, and The Great Dismal‘s opener is one of the most unexpected musical moments of 2020; it’s a down-tempo, slow-burning, near-six-minute start that never transitions to the chaotic or eardrum-shattering levels of previous openers like “Fever Queen”. Opting for a dream-pop and ethereal beginning creates more anticipation for following track and lead single “Say Less”, which comes in at full-throttle after some post-punky drums.  “Your attics spun / I’m not the one / on and on and on / exhausted gums / Say less / I’m numb / it’s on and on and on,” Palermo soothes in between jagged riffs. Most of The Great Dismal follows this aesthetic, like an album full of reinterpretations of My Bloody Valentine’s “Soon”.

Almost out of nowhere, Alex G makes a guest spot on “April Ha Ha”, singing the final verse “Isn’t it strange / watching people / Try and outrun the rain.” Although on paper he seems out of place, there’s a general feel to The Great Dismal that is in tune with Alex G’s slightly off-kilter indie rock at times. This is evident on “Catch a Fade”, where Nothing transition to a 90s throwback sound – but they still layer on that modern production thanks to Will Yip, who emphasizes the harder edges perfectly.

“Bernie Sanders” might at first sound like a silly attempt at bringing politics into their music, but Nothing’s purpose behind this feels less like an opinion-swaying notion and more like a quest for knowledge; the queasy video accompanying it even shows a man digging deeper into himself, with a spin on Hellraiser for emphasis. “Convoluted / Narrative / Encompasses all / Manner of digressions,” they muse, and however one wants to interpret this message is up to them, but at no point are Nothing making a declaration for themselves one way or another; it seems more of a ‘Maybe before posting that unverified statistic on mail-in voting to your social media, you should actually check the sources’ type of message. This is all speculative though, as Palermo even admitted he’s not sure what it means anymore.

The typical pitfalls of a shoegaze album are ever present though. The repetitiveness, the extended jam sessions, and whispered vocals will deter the tourists, but fans of the genre will feel right at home with The Great Dismal. While certain tracks do stand out over others, the collection as a whole presents one more reason for Nothing’s continued popularity in the scene. It has everything one could want from a shoegaze album in 2020, without sounding like their last album that much. A host of minor deviations from the script, like the addition of Martin, and guest spots from Alex G and Mary Lattimore, elevate The Great Dismal out of typical shoegaze territory, even if the instruments and hallmarks are all the same.