Cleveland rock four-piece back to bleak basics on ferocious ‘Last Building Burning’

On Cloud Nothings' most recent album, Last Building Burning (Carpark Records), released earlier this year, singer and guitarist Dylan Baldi flaunts a caustic worldview, confronting everything from gentrification to those people in power who will lie, cheat and corrupt in order to advance their own needs.

“Don't care about hurting … just wanna have power,” Baldi growls on “In Shame,” delivering his words atop clawing guitars and relentless drums courtesy of rhythmic man-beast Jayson Gerycz.

It's a welcome about-face from the Cleveland quartet's previous album, Life Without Sound, an atypically glossy, optimistic turn that felt out of step with the times, arriving the same month Donald Trump took office in early 2017. (The band actually released a playful video for single “Modern Act” in the hours after Trump won the presidential election in Nov. 2016, with Baldi later telling Spin, “If I had been fully aware, I would've said, ‘Let's not do that today. That's a little weird.”)

“[Life Without Sound] definitely wasn't received quite as warmly as our other records, but … there's no way I'll ever know or understand what people think or how people react to an album,” said Baldi, reached walking through a graveyard in Portland, Oregon, in the midst of the West Coast leg of the band's current tour, which hits A&R Bar on Friday, Nov. 16. “But it wasn't like we were purposefully changing [with Last Building Burning]. … This one is just another element of things we can do.”

According to the singer, the new album's darker tact — “I wish I could believe in your dream,” he offers in one typically downcast lyrical aside — is merely a reflection of a long-held viewpoint rather than a commentary on modern times.

“I guess I kind of always just thought that the world was ending and that things are just going bad all the time — even when people are like, ‘No, things are good,'” Baldi said.” So that's always been my worldview, and maybe now it's finally becoming mainstream. … It just seems to me a very sensible way to look at things.”

Songs such as “The Echo of the World” and “So Right So Clean” were further influenced by a development Baldi has witnessed taking place in Cleveland in recent years, with history-rich buildings being demolished and replaced by cookie-cutter retail and housing units. “I see signs of life in alleys and corners/I smell death on a crowded street,” Baldi sings on the latter. “I feel the last old building burning/I've got nowhere left to put my feet.”

“There are certain parts of town where they're tearing down historic buildings and putting up those same condos that are popping up all over the world,” said Baldi, who lives in an Old Brooklyn neighborhood in Cleveland that has managed to maintain its character — at least for now, he cautioned. “Places lose their personality once money comes in and you just totally knock something down and put up a box that people can buy a weird space in for like $600,000. It's a depressing fact of modern life. A lot of cool and interesting history is getting destroyed and replaced by gross buildings for rich people.”

To record Last Building Burning, Cloud Nothings departed to Sonic Ranch in Tornillo, Texas, for nine days in March 2018.

“It's a pecan farm right on the border of Mexico, and there are a bunch of different buildings. I think there are three studios on the property now, so there can be like three different bands recording at any given time,” Baldi said. “It's hard to explain that place. It's pretty surreal.”

Though Sonic Ranch might've seemed as geographically removed from the band's Cleveland experience as possible, Baldi said both places offered a similar sense of seclusion.

“Growing up around Cleveland there was not a whole lot for a young kid to do, and I think that isolation was kind of important,” Baldi said. “It's not in the middle of nowhere — it's still a big city — but like you can still feel relatively isolated from the rest of the world if you want to. … That's important for any sort of creative thing — to have time in your own head. And Cleveland provides that, especially in the winter.”

Also, on a more practical level, the city offered a multitude of dingy, affordable spaces in which the band could hone its sound.

“The generosity of people with garages in Cleveland has been a lifesaver,” Baldi said, and laughed. “It's kind of interesting to track the progression of rooms from album to album. We've practiced in the different garages and basements all over the city — a different small, gross room for every record.”