Throwbacks to styles of music from previous decades and generations have been toyed with a lot in the past decade within this thing we’re going to call “indie” music. Whereas it can be fun to relive (or live for the first time) something from another time period, emulating a retro style just for the sake of fun or nostalgia usually has its way of captivating me.
There are only a few cases where it has been brilliantly employed to thematically enhance an album, such as last year’s Kaputt from Destroyer. There, a defeated artist used ‘80s style jazz and synth to create something almost like a porno soundtrack to highlight what a lot of hard working musicians are eventually reduced to. In doing so, it makes a personal statement into a more widespread cultural one, especially because so many bands are hopping on the ‘80s synth fun train these days.
This year’s Attack on Memory by Cloud Nothings is another album that borrows some styles and has generated a massive amount of buzz and already landed at number one on some preemptive mid-year lists. However, in contrast to the Cloud Nothings’ previous releases, the album is drastically different and almost sucks out everything that I loved about the band to start with.
I first heard about Cloud Nothings because they were playing a lot of shows around Boston with local bands that I liked. Back around 2009, they were touring with songs from their first release, Turning On. What was appealing about the band wasn’t just that they played catchy nerd-pop songs about being losers that were just stupid and fun, but the fact that it captured what it felt like for me to live in Boston and go to house shows. The band was the exact kind of band that would’ve thought that they would have time to drive off before their set to get tacos, but end up arriving really late to a living room full of people who didn’t even notice that they were gone, because they were having fun chilling and talking and drinking. Or the type of band that plays too loud in the basement and after their set, everyone has to whisper as the cops drive by with their lights on. I liked the music not because of the associations I had, but because it captured what it was like to be someone my age in the current age.
Cloud Nothings fell off my radar until this year when Attack on Memory came out and it was immediately a pleasant reminder of the way the band felt in 2009, until I actually listened to it. In comparison to Turning On, singer Dylan Baldi’s vocals are serrated like barbed wire. Not that there’s anything wrong with screaming, but Kurt Cobain screamed because he couldn’t sing. Baldi’s grizzled shouts are a finely tuned instrument and the vocal training can be seen on the band’s self-titled album from 2011, where growling experiments sparingly appeared for the first time on Cloud Nothings recordings. The point being that the band was trying to sound like something other than what they were. After adjusting expectations, I really grew to like the album. Baldi’s pop hooks emerge in tracks like “Stay Useless” and “Fall In” and the lyrics did well to capture that same contemporary spirit and struggle as before. However, the style is completely different and doesn’t match the lyrical message to the point of almost being hypocrisy.
Listen to Cloud Nothings’ “Can’t Stay Awake” (Turning On) below.
Listen to Cloud Nothings’ “No Future, No Past” (Attack on Memory) below.
The Pitchfork review puts a few words in Baldi’s mouth by saying:
The title (Attack on Memory) is more of a call to be heard in the current climate rather than a total negation of it. But the last Fugazi album came out when Baldi was 10, and it’s easy to see “memory” as a stand-in for indie’s stylistic pervasiveness: de-emphasis of guitars and live performance, passivity over aggression, past over presence, singing like you don’t care if you get understood or even heard. That just doesn’t cut it for a lot of people his age who wonder if they’ll ever witness The Argument’s kind of life-affirming vitality firsthand.
The review interprets Cloud Nothings’ change of style as a cultural commentary on the predominant indie trends of the 2000s. The hypocrisy lies within the fact that “memory” in the album’s title is interpreted as standing for indie music over the last 12 years. The assertion seems to be that no modern musician has the talent to create an album that will ever reach the greatness of Fugazi’s The Argument. Indie tropes can get stale for sure, as all stereotypes do, but to “attack” it by reproducing tropes from memory just a little further back that have already been reproduced a million times makes no sense. Particularly because all of those indie earmarks were sort of reactionary against the confrontational aggression that came before it. It’s sort of like taking a step backwards.
It’s alright for a band to go to a costume party for an album, but if it becomes a permanent change, they’re sacrificing individuality and identity. And if the band gets to a high enough level of attention and respect, these things are also sacrificed culturally. Yet, if that’s to say that “indie’s stylistic pervasiveness” (experiments with patterns and loops over showmanship, sarcasm and aloofness, shy buried vocals that highlight the music rather than all the nonsense that surrounds it) are the things that make up the culture of the ‘00s, then casting it off brings cultural progression in indie music to a standstill. I’d much rather see an innovation within those trends, invigorating it with a new perspective, or using it as a sarcastic commentary, or making it thematically pertinent to the album, or taking it a step further to have something to build on in the future to create a unique sound and personality for the ‘10s. Cloud Nothings has such a talent for creating those hooks and fuzz and they haven’t quite perfected it yet. Turning On bears all the beautiful mess and lo-fi of a demo, their self-titled was nice, but it was a bit disorganized and wasn’t as tight and well-built as Attack on Memory.
Part of the inspiration for this article was the fact that two other albums released this year to much hype and high sales also made similar stylistic choices. Sleigh Bells’ Reign of Terror totally scrapped the digital loops and effects that made its fusion with heavy rock so interesting on the band’s debut, Treats. Also, Japandroids Celebration Rock is much less diverse and is just what the title implies, an attempt to squeeze in on the record shelf between Led Zeppelin and Black Flag. The question that arose was, where is this music culture going? Styles like punk or post-hardcore or whatever you want to call it that have already been commercialized, exploited and molested to death (see: grunge and Green Day). Green Day is a perfect example. It would suck if Cloud Nothings turned into Green Day. With these bands getting more popular, especially with broad, well-established generic “rock” sounds, it’s easy for the art to get sucked out of their music.
Attack on Memory actually sounds less like Fugazi and more like another style that was instantly turned into a cash cow, screamo. It’s a shame that media outlets like Pitchfork can give a glowing review to this album, but completely neglect (not even review) albums like Brand New’s last two releases, Daisy (2009)and The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me (2006). They were huge departures from earlier records, being epic and diverse indie rock albums ranging from mellow, deep, and introspective to in your face that were inspired by The Velvet Underground and Neutral Milk Hotel, featuring samples from phone calls, children, and even old gospel reels the band found somewhere. Yet, Brand New will never make an appearance on Pitchfork, simply because they actually were a part of early 2000s screamo.
I honestly don’t think it was Baldi’s intention at all to create any kind of Fugazi-based cultural commentary, but it was rather just the band’s attempt to simply change its sound. After all, Baldi did say in an interview with Pitchfork that was posted two weeks before the review quoted above, “I wanted to make it apparent that it’s an attack on the memory of what people thought the band was.” Baldi chants anthems in nearly every song, like the chorus and title of “Fall In,” and the lyrics, “No nostalgia / No sentiment / We’re over it now / We were over it then,” from “No Sentiment.” Yet, Baldi never says where “in” is or what “it” is. The lyrics are indeed culturally poignant, seemingly to do with the submission of youth culture to higher powers, a theme that resonates with the de-occupation of Wall Street the year before.
In this context, I like to think that a lot of the album is about conformity and the sound becomes another three dimensional level for the theme by conforming to another generation’s style. Especially when he’s shouting, “I thought I would be more than this!” on “Wasted Days” and “Original, it’ll never get old,” on “Our Plans.” I think that’s the real cultural pertinence of Attack on Memory and in that way, it’s actually very similar to Destroyer’s Kaputt, but I think I’m also putting words in Baldi’s mouth.