On their third studio release, Dance on the Blacktop, shoegazing band Nothing has crafted another burst of sound that belies their name. Nothing, as a name, is still terrifically apt for a word to sum up the band’s nihilistic approach to the existential nightmare experience that is life. What is there? Nothing. What can you do about it? Nothing. What they do which works so well is the juxtaposition they create between their truly dread-full themes and such thick walls of sound and sometimes genuinely poetic lyrics. There’s a beauty that can’t help but grow through the dense weeds of Nothing’s music, and it’s on display again here more often than not.
The album begins, for a moment, on a quiet note with “Zero Day,” which soon, of course, erupts into the heavy sound expected from Nothing, with the vocals counteracting the music with their surprising gentleness and melody. This gives the impression of the vocals, particularly in this song, trying to fight against the music as it weighs them down. This isn’t a mark against the music, but rather it fits with the themes of the lyrics, which in “Zero Day” feature a refrain of “light abandons me.” The struggle between the vocals and the music help make more visceral the sensation of oppressiveness or hopelessness described in the lyrics.
Sometimes the relentlessness of the music does wear on the listener if each track is listened to back to back. However, for the most part, the songs are varied enough in their tone and their use of “loud and quiet” that you can listen to most and find enough fresh elements to maintain interest. The sad, soft refrains of “Blue Line Baby” lift up the doomed story of a drug addict, and the self-aware lyrics of “You Wind Me Up” counteract the relatively upbeat sound of the track. “Lay your dizzy head, my love/on my faithless shoulder,” the song goes, subconsciously invoking the sad romanticism of The Beach Boys’ “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder)” and following that with the warning “be careful not to lean too hard/ for I will surely falter.” It may be the closest a Nothing song gets to being pop, but that spirit is tempered by the pragmatic lyrics about commitment challenges.
About halfway through at “Plastic Migraine” things can start to sound repetitive, but then we move quickly into “Us/We/Are,” and get a musically accessible and catchy song about cutting (the repeated phrase here being “everything’s red”). “Us/We/Are” might also be the apex of the use of the ‘90s-spirit that hovers and travels throughout the tracks on this album, to this listener’s appreciation.
“Hail on Palace Pier” stands out for initially centering the drums rather than guitars, and then for, again, accurately building a world around a song that has the music reflecting so well the emotions in the lyrics without straying totally from the Nothing sound. Here the song about characters that were “young and dumb and full of tears,” is paired with music that sounds as wistful as Nothing can sound.
That whiff of nostalgia is then followed by one of the heavier songs on the album, “I Hate the Flowers,” which goes to especially dark visual places in its lyrics which feature the singer demanding to “stop all the clocks in my brain/ Clog all the veins in the drains/ Build a coffin around this house/ Dismantle the soil from the couch.” That heavy dose is followed by the climax of the album with the longest song, and also the quietest, in “The Carpenter’s Son.” Unlike the other tracks which include short elements of quiet or silence, this song remains subdued throughout its nearly eight minutes. A build-up to a stronger climactic finish might have made the song, and album experience, stand out a bit stronger. However, as songwriter Domenic Palermo, also the titular character, has said the song “speaks of the expectations of existence and how there aren’t really many”, so perhaps it’s fitting that the song doesn’t fulfill traditional “long song at the end of the album” expectations either.
The album goes out on a fairly conventional note, with another blast of the rock that we expect from them, possibly so fans remember the band that they love is still there and isn’t going to fade out on this muted dirge. It would have been more interesting to do so, and end the album after “The Carpenter’s Son,” because while “(Hope) Is Just Another Word With A Hole In It” isn’t bad, it is relatively ordinary after the experiment of “Carpenter’s Son.” In that sense, then, the final song can work well as a palette cleanser for those made too narcotized by the penultimate track.
Dance on the Blacktop is ultimately a successful addition to Nothing’s career; a personal dive into the things that haunt someone, with full awareness of all of the aggressiveness and ugliness of life, but with just a little bit of hope for survival and appreciation of the melodies that you can create even amidst the drowning noise.