After the ragged angst of their last two albums, it's not surprising that Cloud Nothings opt for a lighter approach on Life Without Sound -- if only to give Dylan Baldi's vocal cords a much-needed break. On their fifth album, Baldi and company sand off some of the rough edges that defined Attack on Memory and Here and Nowhere Else, and more often than not, it adds nuance to the tug of war between defiance and acceptance that drives their music. However, smoother sounds don't always mean a smoother outlook, and Life Without Sound finds Baldi soundtracking his quarter-life crisis with songs that try to reconcile past with present, youth with growth, and grit with polish. "Up to the Surface" begins the album with piano, an instrument that is often overused by rock bands to convey thoughtful maturity, but coupled with the track's heavy drums and Baldi's gravelly baritone when he sings "I knew peace in the terror of the mind," Cloud Nothings actually do sound thoughtful and mature as they contemplate the moment when abandonment turns into letting go. Helping the band achieve this perspective is producer John Goodmanson, whose work with Death Cab for Cutie feels like a major influence. If Attack on Memory and Here and Nowhere Else built on '90s grunge, then Life Without Sound could be seen as carrying on the tradition of neatened-up early-2000s indie, when acts like Death Cab and Modest Mouse made it big. Though the resemblance is closest on "Modern Act," the album's glossiest moment, the chiming melodies that steered Baldi through his crises since Turning On also take the lead on "Internal World" and "Things Are Right with You," where the chorus "Feel right/feel lighter" feels like a mantra. Cloud Nothings don't forsake fiery outbursts entirely; "Darkened Rings" could have appeared on Here and Nowhere Else. Still, songs like the darkly cathartic finale "Realize My Fate" and "Strange Year," a tangle of recrimination and regret that boasts the album's most throat-shredding vocals, aren't quite as raw as they could have been, emphasizing how the band's focus has shifted. By letting go of a little of their rage, Cloud Nothings let more light and shadow into Life Without Sound with promising results.
AllMusic Review by Heather Phares