Once again, Nation of Language turn ’80s new wave and synth-pop into a transcendent affair on their marvelous sophomore album, ‘A Way Forward’, which is a sure-fire classic.
On virtually every Nation of Language video, front-man Ian Devaney is dancing. Watching him break out his best moves has become nearly as synonymous as his, Aidan Noéll (synth), and Michael Sue-Poi’s (bass) emergence as not only one of the preeminent synth-pop bands of the last 35 years but also one of the very best bands. Their debut album, 2020’s Introduction, Presence, transcended the ’80s new wave and synth-pop from which they drew their inspiration. Consequently, it was one of the year’s most outstanding LPs, ranking extremely high on our Favorite Albums of the 2020.
While many synth-pop bands and artists of yesteryear fizzled out after one or two albums, the Brooklyn-based trio show no signs of slowing down. Rather, they’re ascending at light speed, as they continue to take the music popularized on John Hughes’ films and make them grand, modern, and even at times epic. They immortalize these genres and the stories of life in the contemporary age on A Way Forward.
While the album’s title suggests a band peering into the future, they must look first to the past and present. They must peer into the rear-view mirror to understand what will come, making their choice of music ideal for their intro- and retrospective tales. “I’m staring into the room / I wish I’d known what I know”, Devaney sings with ghostly effect on the minimalist opener, “Manhattan”. With Noéll’s synth percolating with a spine-tingling quality in the background, the image of a man staring at an older reflection himself in the mirror comes into view.
This conversation with himself appears throughout the album. including on the infectious bopper, “Across That Fine Line”. Krautrock flair filters from Noéll’s synths while a Peter Hook-like, post-punk pulse shoots from Sue Poi’s bass. Unexpectedly arising through the haze is Devaney’s shoegaze guitar, which takes this engrossing tune to cinematic heights. It’s like Flock of Seagulls inviting Slowdive’s Neil Halstead and Rachel Goswell to play with them. Despite the song’s allure, Devaney reveals how the lost of time and loved ones has eaten away at him.
“And I’m watching you walk
Across that fine line
I died a hundred times
I reckon you could
Let it bleed
The starker “Former Self” sees the band enter the realm of the five borough’s underworld. “Away from you / I cover it well / But I may crumble”, hauntingly sings Devaney. The front-man’s inner demons, meanwhile, are the focus of “Fractured Mind”. Despite the dance-inducing mélange of krautrock and motorik, he asks, almost rhetorically, if it’s possible to have a better life.
“D’you think that I could simulate
My life, but done a better way
In this fractured mind
I get to feeling turned around
And turned around again”
The band’s stories, however, are not singular. On the enchanting “They’re Beckoning”, which commences like a wake before turning into a majestic rebirth, the band tackle capitalism’s hold on society. “Half of the time falling victim / Multi-level pyramid scheme”, Devaney sings with chilling effect. The blustery “The Grey Commute” examines how life in the modern world can lead to self-destruction. As one of Noéll’s synths sizzles with the sounds of the ’80s and another blasts organ-like notes, Devaney’s shoegaze guitar at first trembles lightly in the background and then illuminates the sky at the song’s euphoric peak. All the while, his booming baritone soars, delivering a story about 2021’s everyday person.
Begging at the altar of the grey commute
So much so, its untenable
Praying to see if there’s someone to remove
Some of the weight
We can’t carry it”
Despite the uncertainty, turmoil, and pain that fills A Way Forward, Nation of Language find moments to finally move ahead. The hauntingly hymn-like “Miranda” is filled with memories of a time when one had free will, including walking away from love. Through the head-bobbing sways elicited from the understated synth and bass lines, “Wounds of Love” achieves in its three-plus minutes what therapists do over months: it provides clarity of what love, companionship, and together means. “I can’t stop / There’s no ceiling in my heart”, Devaney calmly sings. His epiphany comes when he quietly asks,“What is it that I hang around here for?”
His question is best answered on the peaceful yet sweltering “A Word & A Wave”. The track reflects a band at its most confident within its skin. While the synth arrangement is simple, the execution is exquisite and the resulting atmosphere breathtaking to behold. Devaney’s lyrics, too, are gripping. He responds to his question about one’s purpose in the song’s first few lines.
“Finally torn asunder
Fall asleep romanticizing
Heartache in the city center
Watering your pothos while you hum
Aching for something you could save
A word & a wave”
In many respects, Nation of Language are our saviors. They are superheroes, arriving at a point in time where people seek comfort in the familiar yet crave honesty in the messages. So while Aidan Noéll (synth), Michael Sue-Poi (bass, guitar), and Ian Devaney (vocal, synth, guitar) may have resurrected treasured genres and delivered another outstanding album, they have given us the most important gift – the belief that we, too, can find A Way Forward and our purpose in these uncertain times.
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