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Nothing - Dance on the Blacktop Music Album Reviews

On their third album, the Philadelphia shoegaze band’s tried-and-true arrangements are not terribly original, but they are deeply felt.

Dream pop and shoegaze, with their diffuse atmospheres and negative space, invite us to fill in the blanks with our own baggage. The Philadelphia band Nothing do a lot of that filling-in for us—these shoegazers do not look down; they stare you in the eye. It can feel suspect, imposing too much of Nothing’s bleak history onto the blank canvas. But when the saga involves incarceration, pharmaceutical sadist Martin Shkreli, and permanent brain damage—as it does for Nothing frontman Domenic Palermo, who was jumped outside a show in Oakland in 2015 and barely survived—the narrative becomes knotted inextricably into the gentle music. Nothing’s dismal backstory both colors in their sound and accounts for its sadness, its heaviness, its palliative effect. A reputable magazine recently called Nothing “the world’s unluckiest band,” and a journalist once began an interview with the apt question: “Do you feel cursed?” If there’s a hex on Nothing, they embrace it. “I’m living in a dream world,” Palermo sang on 2016’s “Nineteen Ninety Heaven.” “Life’s a nightmare.” That could be Nothing’s manifesto.

The title of Nothing’s third record, Dance on the Blacktop, is a phrase Palermo learned while serving two years in prison in the early 2000s (he stabbed someone in a brawl, claiming self-defense). It is slang for fighting, but Palermo adopts it to mean something like riding the inevitable chaos of existence with grace. Dance on the Blacktop tempers its self-defeatist lyrics with pummeling light, and while the songs here hew closer to billowing 1990s alt-rock than on previous records, there’s still an appealing minimalism to the sound. That might come from the band’s backgrounds in hardcore: Palermo was in Horror Show, on Deathwish; new bassist Aaron Heard also fronts the brutalist Jesus Piece; drummer Kyle Kimball was in the gothier Salvation.

Dance’s tried-and-true arrangements—simmering and erupting, despondent and ecstatic—are not terribly original, but they are deeply felt. “Zero Day” is a decently melancholy Smashing Pumpkins impression, as Palermo sings of “infinity, oblivion” and his “empty sky of everlasting misfortune.” “You Wind Me Up” recalls Dinosaur Jr.’s dry, drawling “Feel the Pain” to an extreme (John Agnello produced both) though its raw character distinguishes it: “We were sitting in the sun/Smoldering a love/The drugs were never strong enough.” There’s an uncomplicated, slackerish romanticism to most Nothing lyrics, as Palermo sings of faded souls and inscrutable stars. Amid the thundering swirl of “I Hate the Flowers,” Palermo is “shook outta heaven, fell into hell.”

The album contains some gorgeous, subtle shifts, almost micro-sized, as if feeling the world after a handful of edibles. With a disarmingly sweet vocal turn, the strummy dynamism of “Us/We/Are” oddly recalls Third Eye Blind’s Stephan Jenkins. “I know it sounds crazy/There’s static in my head/Everything red,” Palermo sings, likely reflecting on his brain trauma. “Blueline Baby” is the album’s highlight, exploding like green fireworks. Palermo wrote it, he says, “about a girl [he] knew who OD’d when she was 13,” and it is a work of pure pathos. On a deluxe edition of Dance, Nothing faithfully cover Grouper’s drone-folk mini-masterpiece “Heavy Water/I’d Rather Be Sleeping,” and if they learned something about the restorative qualities of music from it, “Blueline Baby” is proof.

The cover art for Dance on the Blacktop features a photograph of the New York author Chelsea Hodson in a blank mask, looking hyperreal and obscured at once. Listening to Nothing, I think of a line from her excellent recent essay collection, Tonight I’m Someone Else, which presents a similar mix of elegance and destruction: “How much can a body endure?” she writes. “Almost everything.” Dance on the Blacktop is music at the edge of Hodson’s “everything.” Its theme might be resolve, tenacity, or redemption itself—the sound of hitting rock bottom, looking up, and still catching a glimpse of beauty above.

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