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Hello darkness my old friend… Nothing deliver the most 2020 album of 2020 with The Great Dismal

Philly shoegaze quartet Nothing embrace the void on the none-more-black The Great Dismal

Nothing - The Great Dismal
(Image: © Relapse Records)

‘To live is to suffer; to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering.’

Good old Friedrich Nietzsche, a quote for every occasion, so long as it’s black. You can bet that Nothing frontman Domenic Palermo has read and absorbed the writing of every existential nihilist’s favourite 19th century philosopher, though he may well consider Nietzsche’s outlook on life a tad optimistic: to be fair, unlike Palermo, the great German thinker never served jail time on a disputed attempted murder charge or never received a brutal gang beatdown that left him hospitalised with a fractured skull, as the Philadelphia-born musician was in 2015, leaving him with symptoms - including bouts of severe depression - associated with a degenerative brain disease (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) which can only be fully confirmed posthumously.

Palermo started writing The Great Dismal, Nothing’s fourth album, after jotting down the words ‘existence hurts existence’ on a notepad, and that gloomy notion underpins every one of its 10 tracks. Opening track A Fabricated Life centres around the lyric “I’m nauseous from the ride”, while Palermo’s final words on closing track, Ask The Rust, are “Everything decays”; at no point during the 45 minutes of music which separates these words is a single shard of lyrical light permitted to breach the darkness. A party album, then, this is not, but in seeking to explore “themes of isolation, extinction, and human behavior in the face of 2020’s vast wasteland”, with The Great Dismal, Nothing have fashioned an absorbing modern shoegaze classic.

At this juncture, lest anyone accuse Nothing of cynically exploiting the misery brought about in 2020 by the still-spreading coronavirus pandemic, it should be pointed out that Domenic Palermo began work on The Great Dismal long before the words Covid-19 entered global consciousness. On April 10, 2019 The New York Times printed the first ever photograph of a black hole, defined by NASA as “an astronomical object with a gravitational pull so strong that nothing, not even light, can escape it”, on its front page. “What a time to be alive,” the newspaper quoted a New York college professor and cosmologist saying. Domenic Palermo was so struck by the image that he framed the photograph, and hung it above the desk where he writes, considering the idea of a void capable of destroying everything in its path a perfect metaphor for humanity. 

Unsurprisingly then, the lyrics he penned for the follow-up to 2018’s Dance On The Blacktop, are relentlessly, almost comically, bleak. “Believe the dream is over” he sings on Just A Story, “Paradise is somewhere else” he notes on In Blueberry Memories, “Send the bombs, we’ve had enough of us” he concludes on Famine Asylum. Amid this avalanche of misery, one might be moved to agree with Palermo when he pleads “Say less, I’m numb“ among squalls of My Bloody Valentine-style guitar on the album’s first single Say Less.

It all might be rather overwhelming if The Great Dismal wasn’t also shot through with moments of transcendent beauty. The shimmering harp strings on the beats-free, minor key A Fabricated Life recall Spiritualized at their most tender, the warm fuzz of Catch A Fade could be as uplifting as primetime Weezer if its core lyric - “I’ll tie one off” - didn’t rather suggest the embrace of a very specific type of narcotic oblivion, while In Blueberry Memories and Blue Mecca have the same seductive pull as Gish-era Smashing Pumpkins. Plus there’s fun to be had in spotting Palermo’s cultural references, with Just A Story drawing inspiration from J.D. Salinger’s classic angst and alienation text Catcher In The Rye and the title Ask The Rust serving as a knowing nod to John Fante’s Great Depression-set novel Ask The Dust. And for an American band to release a song titled Bernie Sanders on the eve of a Presidential election from which the progressive Senator from Vermont is sadly absent suggests that Nothing are not lacking a sense of gallows humour.

Back in August, alt. right ‘cultural commentator’ / conspiracy theorist Paul Joseph Watson, logged into his Prison Planet Twitter account to rail against “musicians who release depressing music”, calling them “frauds”, “cowards” and “inauthentic zoomer killers”. The existence of The Great Dismal, an intense and unflinching album which embraces life’s chaotic absurdity and weighs heavily long after its final riffs fade to black, would surely make Mr Watson deeply, deeply unhappy. So, hey, maybe 2020 isn’t all bad news after all.