Last fall I got a promo email from some marketing company for a New York based synthpop act with an odd name. Nation of Language??? What is that supposed to mean?
Well, they had released the first song on their second album, and were “appearing on” The Colbert Show to promote it. I get lots of these emails – I am told several times before a band appears on one of these late night talk shows, and then usually get a link to the performance afterwards. That’s great, because even though I have insomnia I have never been a fan of late night talk shows. So, the promo people sent me a link to a video.
It is for the song Across That Fine Line and the song rules. It is all tinkling synths, strong vocal lines, deep bass, and a grinding guitar bit. It takes what New Order basically did and drags it into the 21st century. The video is … well, it’s not live. It looks like it was filmed in some restaurant or something. But whatever, the song rules.
And it stuck in my head. Hard. I couldn’t get this one out of my mind. So I went and listened to the rest of the album on their BandCamp page. On first listen it struck me as just decent. A good synthpop record with one soaring, glorious tune. I debated the merits of the other tunes in my head and then, one BandCamp Friday, I just went ahead and bought it on vinyl. We shall see, I thought, how this one ages.
And a strange thing happened, something that has happened a lot to me over the years, and one of the reasons with I write about albums (or EPs) here and not just individual songs, and that is: when listening to a package like this, I grew to first like the other tunes in relation to the one standout track that had brought me here in the first place, but then also grew to love other tunes on this record. I think I wrote about this growth of appreciation on repeated deep listenings when we discussed Foolish a while back, but something similar happened here.
So in time I grew to really like this record. Nation of Language have not just grabbed New Order and drug their sound forward, but they also grab Ultravox, Kraftwerk, Wang Chung, Yaz, OMD, and a myriad other synthpop artists from the 1980s, and update the sound. Listening to this record is like having a long conversation with the band members about music they liked from the ‘80s. (I say from the 80s, not in the 80s because I am fairly certain none of them are old enough to have lived through the 1980s. At this point I would like to remind them to stay offa my lawn!)
I could probably spend time ranting about each song if I wanted to, but rather than go into exhausting detail, let me go over just two more.
The Grey Commute starts off with a flat drum machine beat, monotonous and cold, with whooshing sounds every few measures to make it sound like a train, in a way. Then vocalist Ian Devaney comes in, his voice a rich baritone, smooth and emotive and slightly echoed. The keys join in and the whole thing goes forward, the voice and the synths soaring around that train rhythm.
The next tune is the second real stunner on the album. This Fractured Mind has supposedly earned a lot of radio play across the pond. At least, it is the song that Brits I know are familiar with from this band. It starts with a synthline beat and a fat drum machine cymbal, then chiming layers of synths come in, spacey, weird, sparkling. The bass joins in, an eventually the voice as well. It floats along on the verses, but on the choruses the song swells up, the voice soaring and the bass really driving along as synths sparkle. This song is glorious and fun.
After I became so enamored of this record, I went and bought their debut record from the band as well. On that record, they play synthpop that would not have been out of place in the 1980s, and that reinforced my thought that what Nation of Language are doing here takes just a bit from modern electronica to make the synthpop feel fresh, and new.
It’s a hell of a feat, and I am fascinated to see where this band goes next. If you enjoy synthpop, post-punk, or fun danceable pop music then Nation of Language is for you. Go track this down.