Nation of Language bring the past to the present yet make ’80s New Wave and synth-pop their very own on their spectacular debut, ‘Introduction, Presence’.
Electronic music is everywhere today. Country, hip-hop, pop, rap, rock, and even folk artists are integrating synths, 808 drum machines, and vocoders. Nearly 40 years ago, a different kind of electronica dominated. The ’80s belonged to New Wave and synth-pop. The music was cinematic and breathtaking. It inspired a generation to dream big, dance away their worries, and believe in the impossible. Nowadays it is rare to find entire albums possessing the same transcendent power of that era. One standout synth-driven record was Future Islands’ 2017 LP, The Far Field.
Around this time, another band with a similar foundation was getting warmed up. Like a subplot out of a John Hughes film, Ian Devaney was at a crossroads. He was the frontman of the indie-rock band Static Jacks, who had released two albums and were working on a third. The outfit became dormant, leaving Devaney to decide whether to release the material he had in his possession or start anew. Then an epiphany (or chance) occurred when he heard OMD’s “Electricity” playing in his father’s car. This jump-started his creative juices and the seeds to the next great synth-pop band were sown.
Over the past six years, Devaney – along with his wife and creative partner Aidan Noéll (synths) and Michael Sue-Poi (bass) – have been reviving the ’80s as Nation of Language. Their fanbase expands with each new single they release. If the year was 1984, Nation of Language would be superstars. Here in 2020 they are introducing a new generation to the music many of us adored as kids while making it all their own. Their efforts have culminated with the release of their debut album, Introduction, Presence.
This 10-track record is a spectacular marvel. It is meticulously crafted and produced, where Noéll and Sue-Poi’s widescreen melodies contrast the foreboding gloom in Devaney’s lyrics. Not many albums can simultaneously capture hopelessness and lost with optimism and heroism, yet the trio have done that and then some, as they channel their own bumpy experiences to get where they are today.
The LP’s bookends accentuate their artistry. The majestically gorgeous “Tournament” opens the album, and it feels like the band’s, and specifically Devaney’s, life story. Through Noéll and Sue-Poi’s spellbinding haze, he confesses to constantly searching for meaning in his life. He sings, “I’m not rushing away / ‘Cause I’ve been waiting for a long, long time.” With Sue-Poi’s Peter Hook-ish bass line in the driver’s seat, the New Order-esque closer “The Wall & I” takes ’80s synth-pop to delirious heights. Devaney’s trembling baritone, meanwhile, resembles The National’s Matt Berninger as does his songwriting. His tale of frayed friendships, broken families, and lost causes is a relatable as well. And yet when he sings, “I stared up the wall and he said / ‘”I don’t know” is not an answer to the question,'” the words seem to be the impetus for his rebirth.
The National/Matt Berninger influence is echoed on the brimming synth-pop “Rush & Fever” and the emotive “Sacred Tongue.” Whereas the former seeks redemption from a higher order, the latter is a search for meaning in one’s life. The unrelenting search for redemption is most clearly articulated on the awe-inspiring “Motorist.” The instruments forge a hypnotic atmosphere as Devaney starts first in spoken word before his voice turns ghostly. At this point, his endeavors through most of the album become crystallized: “And it’s my intention / to find redemption / but elusive it proves to be.”
Rediscovering faith is at the heart of the euphoric, Flock of Seagulls-esque “September Again.” As Noéll’s synths sparkle in the air, Devaney sings with more urgency, particularly when he says:
“So you go back to church to reclaim the feeling
You say you don’t understand why
And you spend extra time standing naked in the mirror
When you wanna wear something nice
And it’s September again!”
The tale continues on “On Division St”, which echoes of the bubbling synth-pop of Human League. However, our protagonist’s fate ends tragically. “You buried me / Right where I belonged / And still, I’m waiting there / On Division St,” Devaney calmly sings, as if he’s accepted the inevitable. “Indignities” features a post-punk/Joy Division-inspired vibe and showcases the trio’s art. The bass trembles through bleak synths and 808s to form the canvass to the hopelessness of the lyrics.
“Friend Machine” further sees the band extend themselves. The track resides in the draughty, underground clubs of London, Berlin, and Munich of the ’80s. New Wave and Krautrock intersect on this dark yet hypnotic track that evokes early Depeche Mode. This complex mixture of sound melds around the trance-like bass and consume Devaney’s ghostly vocals. He sounds like he’s trapped in another dimension, while he’s actually a prisoner in his own mind. He is searching for a friend to listen and to help him find redemption:
“It’s just an itch
There in the bottom of the mind
Come out with it
You make me wonder all the time
Are you listening, friend?”
Soon enough, everyone will be listening because Nation of Language have unveiled an album that spans the ages. Introduction, Presence is not merely reviving the music of the ’80s. It reminds us that great records can offer an escape yet force us to contemplate our existence. In this respect, it is as transcendent as anything from artists who topped the charts 40 years ago. This is a record we’ll remember not just at the end of this year but for many years to come.
Introduction, Presence is available on all the download and streaming platforms and directly at Bandcamp.
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