with Nap Eyes
For a band that sticks to its impulses instead of trends, Cloud Nothings accumulates critical praise and loyal fans with the type of ease modern rock bands can only dream of. That’s because the Cleveland four-piece is the byproduct of Dylan Baldi, a frontman whose melodic intuition and musical fervor are as innate as they are impressive. Baldi’s early indie rock songs welcome pop warmly without sounding trite. His later alt-rock hooks are too busy criss-crossing guitar lines to overthink things. The urgency he writes with comes across in the vividness of his guitar. Since expanding his solo project into a proper band, Baldi has positioned Cloud Nothings as the torchbearers of the frenetic, visceral, and thundering rock of bands like The Wipers and Drive Like Jehu. It’s all alternating resolves and anticipated breakdowns. And live, it’s near impossible to dispute talent that palpable. Looking back, it makes sense how Cloud Nothings got here. At the age of 18, Baldi gained attention after a string of lo-fi songs he recorded in the comfort of his basement began circulating online. It landed him a spot on a buzzed-about show in Brooklyn where, in turn, he caught the eyes of Carpark. His music began its upward ascent immediately. In 2010, Carpark released Turning On, a retrospective combo of the band’s debut EP and various 7” singles. Cloud Nothings unveiled their self-titled LP the following year, a record that showcased how crisp Baldi’s hooks sound when given proper studio time. But what followed in 2012, their breakthrough LP Attack on Memory, paved a new path for the band. The album saw Baldi throw himself into his guitar while collaborating with the rest of his touring band—drummer Jayson Gerycz, bassist TJ Duke, and guitarist Joe Boyer—to create an aggressive, unrelenting, and throat-scratching album that captured not just their sound, but their collective raw energy. Cloud Nothings fleshed out that sound further on 2014’s Here and Nowhere Else, this time as a trio after Boyer’s departure. Even when Baldi, in a decision to feed his quiet fondness for pop, used 2017’s Life Without Sound to showcase his melodic inclinations, he showed a continued growth in his songwriting skills. Cloud Nothings fold all of that forward momentum into their newest record, Last Building Burning. Just over half an hour in length, the album is a singular listen designed to mirror the experience of their live shows. Gerycz and Duke propel the rhythm section with their fastest speed to date. Baldi and guitarist Chris Brown reshape converging guitar parts into double-edged swords, reaching beyond power chords for instantly pleasing riffs that are urgent in delivery. Though the record touches on various sounds of the band’s past—“Another Way Of Life” digs its toes into the harmonies of Life Without Sound and “On An Edge” recalls the blistering peaks of Here and Nowhere Else—it showcases how untouchable the band has become. Cloud Nothings are a permanent staple of what rock music should sound like: gritty, caustic, and tireless. In that, almost a decade into their career, Cloud Nothings have become a reference point for budding rock acts while perpetually looking to outdo themselves as they go.
Nap Eyes makes crooked, literate guitar pop refracted through the gray Nova Scotian rain. Their songs are equal parts shambling and sophisticated, with one eye on the dirt and one trained on the starry firmament, inhabiting a skewed world where odes to NASA, brain protein aggregation, and the Earth’s magnetic field coexist easily with lyrics about insomnia, self-reproach, and drinking too much. In the world of Nap Eyes, workaday details punctuate (and puncture) cosmic concerns, as enigmatic songwriter, singer, and rhythm guitarist Nigel Chapman wrestles with air and angels, struggling (and often failing) to reconcile the Romantic rifts, both real and imagined, that define our lives: between chaos and order; solipsism and fellowship; the anxiety of social (dis)orders both big and small; and the various intersections and oppositions of religion, art, and science.
I’m Bad Now, the most transparent and personal Nap Eyes album to date, constitutes the third chapter of an implicit, informal trilogy that includes Whine of the Mystic (2014, reissued in 2015) and Thought Rock Fish Scale (2016), which was nominated for the Polaris Music Prize. The new songs position Nigel as a “cosmical mind” in the tradition of Olaf Stapledon’s philosophical science fiction novel Star Maker (1937), an existential detective who interrogates social, psychological, and spiritual milieus for clues about the elusive nature of knowledge. In this role, the song-persona, if not the songwriter, resembles a monkish, beatifically stoned Columbo, vigilantly squinty-eyed in his metaphysical quest for self-understanding, despite ostensible bumbling on the physical plane. The technology is essentially catechismal, taking the form of questions and answers posed to assert faith, or to defend doubt. The lyrics traffic in second-person address, but the “you” is often Nigel himself, a gaze inward and not, as in the “you” of most romantic pop songs, directed outward to others. (See “I’m Bad,” the almost-title track that deletes the temporal anchor of “now,” which employs second person self-address in a country-rock inclined tune that is stylistically different than anything the band has attempted, as well as mockingly self-flagellating. “You’re so dumb,” Nigel sings to himself, diagnosing his delusions.)
And yet some of the loveliest moments on I’m Bad Now involve rare glimpses of connection, anxious invitations to alien others. The galloping rhythmic rush of “Roses” locates an external “you” that remains a mirrored embrace: “People look for their reflections/Everywhere in everyone/Some like a soft glow, some a little sharper depiction.” In “You Like to Joke Around with Me,” our hard-pressed hero is redeemed by friendship: “Last night, my friends surprised me/With gestures of kindness I’d never expect,” catalyzing a minor revelation: “Tuning yourself/To catch another’s wavelength/Sure can make a difference/In this world.” The band itself is tuned to the wavelength of succinctly stinging, guitar-centric rock and roll—in other words, and by today’s genre standards, folk music.
While Nigel composes Nap Eyes songs in their inchoate form at home in Halifax, Brad Loughead (lead guitar), Josh Salter (bass), and Seamus Dalton (drums), who live a twelve-hour drive away in Montreal, augment and arrange them, transubstantiating his skeletal, ruminative wafers into discourses that aim to transcend what Nigel, in the song “Dull Me Line,” self-laceratingly deems “bored and lazy disappointment art.” The band provides ballast and bowsprit to Nigel’s cosmical mind. The nautical metaphor is not just whimsy: Nap Eyes are all Nova Scotians by raising and temperament, acclimated to life on an Atlantic peninsula linked narrowly to the rest of North America (“Follow Me Down,” with its “broad cove” and bay, and “Boats Appear,” with its “steam trails rising from the sea,” both offer an evocative sense of place for these otherwise mental mysteries.) Brad is a physical guitarist whose lyrical grace is matched only by the dark ferocity of his feedback-laced solos. Salter and Dalton exercise an unassuming mind-meld melodicism and vigor, and their gentle thrumming lends a new sonic clarity, depth, and range to match the effortless melodies and extraordinary writing. One couplet herein suggests the exalted life-force of rhythm in the estimation of Nap Eyes: “Hearing the bass as you enter your teens/Exit your life recollecting universal themes.”
The indelible instrumentation, coupled with the calm, lucid inquisitiveness of Nigel’s voice elevate certain verses, like this one from “Follow Me Down,” to the heights of everyday poetry:
I went out walking with my headphones on Classical Indian raga twenty minutes long Then I listened to old American folk song A little bit shorter, still a lot going on.
Nap Eyes songs resonate because they manage to balance delicately the cryptic and the quotidian, rendering a compellingly honest equivocation without evasiveness, a relatable ambivalence without apathy. As a result, both lyrically and musically, their music articulates the urgency of youthful grace. It’s the sound of being young and alive in the city, a tenuous and impermanent counterpoise of recklessness and anxiety, archness and earnestness. So let fly the cosmical mind into the gray night, dear listener.