For as overbearingly bleak as Nothing’s music has frequently and readily been, it’s always felt out of necessity. Through crushing, feedback-sodden shoegaze, Domenic Palermo has managed to exorcise his demons and articulate some of the horrors he’s been through; 2014’s Guilty Of Everything was a cry for forgiveness after serving a two-year prison sentence for aggravated assault charges, while 2016’s Tired Of Tomorrow recalled the horrific ordeal of being mugged and assualted after a show. Now, almost like clockwork, Dance On The Blacktop continues Palermo’s string of toils, now arriving in the wake of his diagnosis with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, and the crushing impact – both physically and mentally – it’s had.
When it comes to how this is translated musically, there will be some to whom this will resonate with and have a far greater effect on that others, and that’s largely the fault of shoegaze and post-rock as genres rather than anything that Nothing are doing with them. For subject matter that thrives on both hazy uncertainty and crushing realism and existentialism, Dance On The Blacktop makes light work of illustrating the aural equivalent of those emotions and how draining they can be. But with the vast limitations that these genres can have in terms of sound and execution, Nothing are basically fenced in with what they can achieve here. And none of that’s to say that Dance On The Blacktop is bad, but when an album actively sets out to hit those empty and openly depressing beats and succeeds to the extent it does, there’s only so much that can really be taken in at once.
It ultimately seems wrong for this to be a point of contention given that it’s really the aim of the album, and as an isolated narrative describing Palermo’s deterioration and deeper sense of loss, there’s such a great deal of poignancy here. The transition is definitely noticeable as well, starting from the concern and shock of opener Zero Day that gradually has an effect on the vocalist’s physical health on Plastic Migraine, and ultimately arriving at eight-minute-long mournings over the death of his estranged father on The Carpenter’s Son, and twisted realisations of how blackly comedic the whole situation has turned out on (Hope) Is Just Another Word With A Hole In It. And that sort of buildup with no set-in-stone end point is compelling storytelling; there’s not a defined payoff as such, but there isn’t supposed to be, and in a situation like this, the open-ended cliffhanger works just as well as the closing salvo.
Again, this isn’t meant to be uplifting in any way, shape or form, but with instrumentation as droning and relentlessly heavy as it is, it feels as though Nothing are beating that into the listener to the point where it has a serious effect on how entertaining this is to listen to. Even on its own, there’s not a lot wrong with the overall composition; the distinct grunge influence on Blue Line Baby and Us/We/Are come the closest to accessibility that this album is willing to go, and it overall remains weighty enough to fit the dejected, distant mood. Put all the pieces together though, and Dance On The Blacktop loses some significant credence for being as alienating as it is, consistently wallowing in sheer nihilism and darkness with no thought of how that translates to a full body of work. Given Palermo’s headspace, that’s somewhat understandable, but it’s not attractive and doesn’t make for a listen with much dynamism.
And for some, that’ll be absolutely no problem; there’s an clearly-defined audience that Nothing will appeal to and resonate far more deeply with. Otherwise though, Dance On The Blacktop is a well-composed, well-meaning album that becomes lost in its own portentous weight to make more of an impact beyond a base emotional bristling it’s undoubtedly supposed to stir. Then again, Nothing are hardly a band designed to appeal to everyone, and the fact that this album has that emotional power, even to those who aren’t fully onboard, is a commendable achievement in itself.
For fans of: Cloakroom, Superheaven, Teenage Wrist
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Dance On The Blacktop’ by Nothing is released on 24th August on Relapse Records.