Nation of Language’s Songs of Internalised Toxic Cycles


Lydia Chowdhury (she/her) reviews album Strange Disciple

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Image by Photo credit: Gus Philippas

By Lydia Chowdhury

On Nation of Language’s new album cover, an anguished monk with puckered, red lips and blush on the apples of his white cheeks, seems to be repenting. The absurdist painting of this strange disciple sets a new cynical precedent for Nation of Language’s music. It’s definitely uncharacteristic of Nation of Language whose past album covers are generic hazy light spots that comfortably signpost their indie status. Previous albums, Introduction, Presence and A Way Forward are upbeat and danceable, 80s’ synthpop with shoegaze tendencies. It’s not to say that their new album Strange Disciple completely abandons their musical traditions, there is still synth, there are still glittering riffs. However, the up-and-comers are evolving toward darker, experimental elements. Ian Devaney, frontman and singer, favours brooding atmospheric synth, texture, a slight apocalyptic edge. It hums a restless intensity under its 80s’ synthpop mask.

Going for their hat trick album, Nation of Language will release Strange Disciple this September: their third album in three years. Pummelling out music and tours that quickly, would cheapen it, you’d think. Yet, the sheer human exhaustion of living on the road, always on the move, hasn’t knocked the wind out of them. Instead, it has inspired them. For Nation of Language, this relentlessness and music-over-self-mindset is working. Devaney is meticulous with his art, is eager to please audiences and has a self-sacrificial drive, ruminating over “disappointing people, especially if they’ve invested emotionally” in the band. The first song on the album (Weak in Your Light), already released as a single, immediately plunges you into this gnawing feeling that you are the only one at a party that isn’t enjoying themselves. It encapsulates the anxiety that Devaney feels on stage perfectly. On Weak In Your Light, the ethereal reverb and unsettling laser beam notes bring a knot to your stomach and form a pit in your chest. The self-assuring lyrics and dysphoria is comparable to ‘Everything Will Be Alright’ by The Killers. They set the tone for the album: intimate, introspective and emotionally profuse.

In fact, the album is swamped in paradoxes intrinsic to the human condition. Both stasis and movement complicate each song in a way that just makes sense. Based and recorded in New York City, the locomotive songs all hold the energy of the city that never sleeps. Devaney’s warm and hopeful vocals may die out and slow down, but the rhythmic repetition is incessant and unfazed. Opposed to the first albums, riddled with Kraftwerkesque transportation imagery, the vocals keep up, they don’t lag like they do in ‘Strange Disciple’. Devaney’s straggling voice, and the synth that powers on, mimic the existential dread of a depressive slump. In 2023, given what is happening globally, it’s hard not to be depressed about the world’s future. An interviewer asks, “Do you feel optimistic about the future?”. Devaney plainly echoed, “I want to be optimistic about the future.”.

Track six on the album, ‘Spare Me The Decision’ is more obviously foreboding: gauzy synth reverberations and krautrock dissonance, feels like drifting about city nightlife and lights, watching the world move outside of yourself. ‘Strange Disciple’ sings its ode to urban nihilism. However, most songs on the record are catchy and have an 80s’ groove, influenced by ‘The Human League’ and ‘Talking Heads’, both 80s’ staples.

The impressive feat of Nation of Language is walking the tightrope between melancholia and electric danceability, taking notes from Canadian songwriter Leonard Cohen and his harmony of the blue and exuberant. On their last tour, Devaney noticed “roughly half of those showing up wanted to dance while the other half wanted to cry”. Their next tour might see more tears than dance moves but there are some undeniably catchy bass riffs, especially in the released single ‘Too Much, Enough’. That being said, it does not take away from the undercurrent of urgency and helplessness that lurk beneath the bassist’s funk. The song protests how people are bombarded with all the tragic, uplifting, sincere, doomsday-warning, soul-warming media that oh-so casually flits across our screens. The star-studded music video of ‘Too Much, Enough’ satirically rears its head at the flippant and soul-paining effect of news broadcasts. With either excessively cheery or deadpan faces, newscasters sing:

“A talk show that cannot help but hurt
Swimming in sweat
Television set
Too much enough, oh”

With the future looking bleak, Nation of Language look to the past, a strong nostalgia inhabits the album. Perhaps it’s the 80s’ influences that offset the nihilism. In itself, the arcade-like beeps and blinking of the synth are nostalgia-inducing. Nation of Language have been playing the Minimoog, an analogue synthesiser; affordable, portable, modular and manufactured in the 70s’. The simplicity and refusal to upgrade their equipment, is not only utilitarian but upholds Nation of Language’s political musings. The lyrics of Too Much Enough delve into the internalisation of such politics. Devaney considers the time-warping effect of media, “Kindly remind me/ To take some time (Ooh, oh)”, the constant stimuli not only eat away at your day but require time apart to make sense of the world again. He sings on, “I’d like to breathe and reconsider/ A gentler redesign”.

Although his lyrics are very unambiguous, they are often equivocal. The sentiments of which can be political and about love, specifically obsession. “Sometimes when I feel the most is when I feel hopelessly devoted to something or someone”, Devaney explains, trapped in a cycle of toxic infatuation, obsession and shame. The robotic keys symbolise a mechanically restrictive and addictive cycle. A consequence of writing songs on toxic relationships is the question of Ian Devaney’s marriage to Aidan Noell, band member and wife. They assure the lyrics are derived from past relationships. In fact, the road has proved a romantic adventure for the couple. Noell quit her potential career as a historian to piece the band together after its dissolution. She learned the keys and took to the road with Devaney. The band take their art seriously, music taking priority over: a five-year delayed honeymoon, mental health, negative income and the non-stop touring life. Devaney joked that next year might finally be the year they get their honeymoon. His hopeful laughs weren’t all that convincing. They are already writing and making music for their next album.

The album will be released on September the 15th, it is available to stream on Spotify and Youtube.