Release Date: June 29, 2015
On the surface, the quasi-surprise teaming of Cloud Nothings and Wavves seems like the indie-punk version of the classic Loner Weirdo and Crowd-Pleasing Hitmaker archetype pair — a fixture of great pop partnership since at least Lennon and McCartney, right up to Kanye and Jigga. The distance between respective frontmen Dylan Baldi and Nathan Williams isn’t really that sizable, though: The memory-attacker started his career with a couple LPs worth of sweetly sentimental lo-fi power-pop, while the King of the Beach has become neurotic enough to name his latest album (and its nervy title-track centerpiece) Afraid of Heights. On the sneak-released collaborative mini No Life for Me, the pair find easy common ground in chiming garage-punk psychoanalysis. (Or, as the immortal Mena Suvari once chose to inaccurately describe Everclear, “Self-loathing complaint rock that you can dance to.”)
Though the project has been in the works since well over a year ago, the nine-track, 21-minute set has the charmingly tossed-off feel of a mixtape — hip-hop or C90. Songs start and end at their leisure, building and breaking unpredictably. “Nervous” leads on a repeated two-line chant, a synth twinkle, and an early Fugazi bass rumble; it gets through one verse and one chorus with a Mascisian guitar riff before running out of gas almost immediately after. “No Life For Me” crashes in with a distorted guitar intro (nearly) swiped from Rush’s “Working Man,” explodes into gorgeous pop-punk harmonizing, with a Sonic Youth guitar breakdown or two on the way to its cacophonous finish. It’s tense throughout, but it’s also endearingly frisky, and the poppiest moments have a tendency of landing at just the right time to stave off any potential noise-rock monotony.
Good thing, too, because the lyrics here can be pretty merciless. “Come Down” is either a panic attack worthy of Black Flag or a bad trip worthy of Nightmares on Wax, with Baldi detailing a descent into oblivion (“You cannot say it, you cannot fight / The world around you is barely there”) as Williams takes over the refrain to confirm his suspicions, “There’s something wrong creeping into your life.” The jagged crunch of standout “How It’s Gonna Go” is even tougher sledding, with Williams anxiously ranting, “I’m such a f—king mess, don’t know at all / How it’s gonna go” (that’s the chorus), while Baldi responds “I feel it open / I feel it open up around me” (annnd the release). The self-excoriation is undoubtedly affecting, but the album’s general sense of movement, as well as the support and balance the two provide by essentially playing each other’s shrink — keep it from becoming totally overwhelming.
And like the Nothings’ similarly troubled 2013 LP, Here and Nowhere Else, the final couch session on No Life for Me does end with a positive breakthrough. Solo Baldi composition “Nothing Hurts” is as striking as any of the tracks that came before it, with the singer-songwriter attempting in vain to deny his feelings (“I can tell myself that nothing hurts / That I don’t need to sing”), as the wailing guitars underneath betray his true emotions. (Like Ween’s similarly tear-jerking “Birthday Boy,” no drums are needed, and would likely just be buried by the distortion anyway.) The ending, however, is disarmingly affirmative: “But I move ahead each day / and I will not be the same.” It’s Baldi’s sentiment, but after 20 minutes of call-and-response between the two, you can feel Williams pushing him towards it, holding his hand. In alt-rock as in group therapy, two is stronger than one.