Cloud Nothings has a mission statement for its second album. It’s not a complex one, and it’s not cryptic in the slightest. In fact, it’s stated quite clearly at the start of the sixth song of Attack On Memory, “No Sentiment”: “We started a war/Attack on memory/No easy way out/Forget everything.” As an ode to 20-something angst, Attack On Memory succeeds by wearing its insecurities like a badge of honor. Clocking in at a short but exhausting 34 minutes, the album is an unrelenting mass of rage. Cleverly, singer-songwriter-bandleader Dylan Baldi turns that rage inward, damning his own failures and lack of direction rather than blaming the world around him. It’s a bold move because in less capable hands, it could come off as a “woe is me” mess that would turn off listeners from the first play.
That’s a lot of thematic analysis without much mention of the music. Well, fear not. The music is unlike anything Cloud Nothings has done before, and that’s a good thing. The band has channeled its inner post-punk Goliath and put it out on tape. The guitars have a menace to them, the drums thunder like Valhalla’s most fearful warriors, and Baldi’s voice prominently dominates the mix with snarls and screams. It’s almost frightening to think about what prompted this change from the lo-fi, alt-punk Cloud Nothings of years past. There’s even an instrumental rocker in here, titled “Separation,” that rumbles like a mine cart on a one-way express lane to hell. Everything here is infused with aggression and energy.
Much has been made of what Steve Albini contributed (or didn’t contribute) to Attack On Memory. Whatever may have happened in the studio, we’re all the better for it. This record is loud, polished and perfectly mixed: Drums crash where they should, and guitars take center stage at key moments while performing admirable backup duties when Baldi needs to come forward and preach the immobile apocalypse. The almost pop-punk “Fall In” and the song-about-doing-nothing “Stay Useless” shine as the best examples of how to mix songs for maximum emotional effect: The former utilizes key backup vocals and a loud hi-hat drumline to create a sense of anxiety, while “Stay Useless” gives a loud bassline backbone the spotlight that lulls the listener into the same sense of haze that Baldi feels before roaring back in the chorus.
The best track on the album, and an early contender for best song of the year, is “Wasted Days.” Coming after the piano-guitar freakouts of album opener “No Future/No Past,” “Wasted Days” comes out of the gates with a guitar intro that evolves into a full-band romp…that doesn’t let up for nine minutes. It’s a rare feat, to craft a long song that feels like it could have been even longer, but Cloud Nothings has come damn close here. After a lyrical first third, the middle third is given to Baldi’s bandmates, who build a sense of brooding and remorse (and there’s a bass solo too!). This leads to the climactic ending, with Baldi screaming at his past self for his silly dreams: “I thought/I would/Be more/Than this!” It’s the most repeated lyric on Attack On Memory and for good reason: In a time of disillusioned young adulthood, we have no one to blame but our past selves who thought they would be kings.