Nation of Language are a Brooklyn-based trio, led by songwriter Ian Devaney, along with his wife Aidan Noell on synths and bassist Michael Sue-Poi. Their 2020 debut album, ‘Introduction, Presence’ was a lovingly crafted, pitch-perfect tribute to 80s synth pop, in all its shiny, euphoric, swooning glory. So precise was their re-creation of an iconic sound that even on first listening you could swear you’d heard it somewhere before. Tracks like ‘Rush & Fever’, ‘Indignities’ and the ‘Wall and I’ packed a concentrated hit of such strong nostalgia – instantly recognisable from countless films, TV shows and seemingly endless ‘back to the 80s’ cultural debris – that they felt imbued with an extra emotional heft, ordinarily earnt by a band over the course of several albums.
This kind of overtly retro homage is nothing new of course. The time-lapse on what counts as retro currently seems set to the late 90s/early 00s – I’ve yet to see anything celebrating the styles of the 2010s, but maybe I’m not cutting edge enough. Whichever era it is being mined for treasures, there’s something satisfying in hearing it done so well. And Nation of Language are masters of their chosen niche. So any disappointment I might feel that their much-hyped sophomore album, ‘A Way Forward’, serves up more of the same seems a little unfair. Because once again, everything about the band’s sound is just so – the arpeggiated synth lines, melodic bass, peppy drum machine hits and Devaney’s crooned vocals all combine in a simulacrum so perfect, it’s all almost realer than the real thing.
The genesis of Nation of Language can be found when Devaney heard ‘Electricity’ by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, while living back with his parents in New Jersey, after the dissolution of his previous band, The Static Jacks. Although familiar with the song from childhood, it sparked something new in him and he attempted to recreate something similar – the result being ‘Laudanum’, which found its way to Nation of Language’s debut EP. It’s no surprise then that the influence of OMD, Kraftwerk, Depeche Mode, New Order and countless others can be heard on ‘A Way Forward’ and anyone with a deep knowledge of this period will have plenty of fun influence-spotting. If like me however, your knowledge of synth-pop is confined to ‘the hits’, you can simply relax and let it wash over you in a warm fuzzy wave.
While ‘A Way Forward’ is anything but a reinvention of the band’s sound, in fairness it does feel like they’ve grown and matured. The arrangements are more spacious, with tracks taking their time to build and blossom rather than rushing straight to the climax. The group seem more measured in their approach and confident to flex – albeit within the tightly defined bounds of their chosen remit.
The album’s opening, comprising the trio of belters, ‘In Manhattan’, ‘Across that Fine Line’ and ‘Wounds of Love is surely one the strongest of any release this year, with each track surpassing the one before. The former is about feeling lost and disillusioned in the big city, as the band found themselves when they first relocated to New York. The lyrics “Strung along by fiction, Read it in a magazine, Strung along by fiction, From a movie screen” only add to its sense of being montage music for the movie of your life. It’s easy to picture the moody protagonist in an 80s coming of age film, staring listlessly out of a rain spattered window at the neon-lit nightlife below and desperately wanting to be a part of it. And then fast-forward to a later scene, the moody protagonist is now older and wiser as Devaney belts out “I wish I’d known what I know”, while reverbed oohs and ahs carry the track to its rousing climax.
‘Across that Fine Line’ is just as life affirming and introduces a guitar into the mix, in the form of an angular post-punk riff that builds tension before another fist-pumping chorus that again seems tailor-made to soundtrack the pivotal moment in a romantic film – cue a frantic airport dash to stop the love of your life boarding that one-way flight. ‘Wounds of Love’ takes things down a notch tempo-wise, with a synth line that manages to sound plaintive yet optimistic at the same time, in an undisguised Kraftwerk tribute. Balancing these computer-generated sounds is an all too human melody and you’d have to have a heart of stone not to get goosebumps for the gorgeous key change that presages the chorus and another sweep of angelic backing vocals.
Maybe it’s partly down to ‘A Way Forward’ having such a flawless opening, but it does feel like the middle portion of the album lags a little. ‘Former Self’ and ‘The Grey Commute’ draw from the moodier side of the 80s (The Cure, Cocteau Twins, Lowlife etc) and require a little more patient listening before you get to the pay off. The energy picks up again for the final straight, ‘A Word and a Wave’, being another late highlight that will no doubt have festival crowds waving their arms aloft next summer.
Despite its throwback nature, a predilection for 80s synth pop is not a requirement for enjoying ‘A Way Forward’. The song-writing is so assured and the production so meticulous production, that anyone who takes pleasure in unashamed, life-affirming pop music will find much to savour here.