Album Of The Week

Album Of The Week: Nation Of Language Introduction, Presence

Nostalgia has long since been a dirty word. People use it as a dismissal, of escapism or entrenchment by those too afraid to face contemporary life. But nostalgia is a tool. Like anything, it can be overused, worn down. But when wielded properly, it uses the past and the haziness of memory to try and clarify moments we’re living through now. It isn’t just generational drift. It’s a generational viewpoint — wistfulness for an imagined time, for a sense of being anchored and whole, but also exploring why we have that unshakeable yearning now.

Ian Devaney has been here before. At the beginning of things, trying to carve out something new for himself. In the early stretches of the ’10s, Devaney fronted a New Jersey rock band called the Static Jacks. They had some small amount of success, putting out a couple albums and touring before things just petered out. In the aftermath, he had an awakening, deciding to explore synth-based music. He adopted the name Nation Of Language. If you go back to those old Static Jacks recordings now, it sounds like a different person entirely made that music — a remnant of a different life altogether. Something doesn’t sit quite right. But once Devaney went digging back through the music he remembered from childhood, it was as if he discovered the voice he was always supposed to have.

His first album under Nation Of Language is named Introduction, Presence, underlining not just that it’s a debut for this project but also, in a sense, a debut for who Devaney really is. (Devaney still writes all of Nation Of Language’s music, though the band is also filled out by his wife Aidan on synths and former Static Jacks member Michael Sui-Poi on bass.) Across its 10 tracks, Devaney proves himself adept at reconfiguring the past to his liking, landing on a style that is neither blindly retro nor necessarily of this moment, a sort of vibrant tapestry of memory that he lights up with hook after hook.

Introduction, Presence is partially a vision of an artist coming into their own over time. At this point, every song on the album has been available to hear in some form or another save “Automobile.” (The good news is that “Automobile” is one of Introduction‘s best tracks.) No two songs sound overly similar, even as the new wave influence runs throughout. Instead, it’s like each composition is attacking a different set of ideas, trying on opposing shapes — from the slow-burn “Tournament” and the fizzy synth-pop of “Rush & Fever” to material like the spoken-word reverie “The Motorist” pushing further outwards. Collectively, it can make Introduction, Presence feel like a singles collection that nevertheless hangs together as a cohesive album experience, as if Devaney dreamt up an early years greatest hits for an artist that never existed.

When people hear a band like Nation Of Language, it’s inevitable that they’ll think of the ’80s. And, fair enough, many of Devaney’s touchstones come from that golden era of synth-pop. (Tellingly, he cites LCD Soundsystem and the National as more current inspirations, one a synth-based project with an interest in rifling through and recontextualizing the past, the other a group that turns 21st century ennui into moody anthems.) The exact origin of Nation Of Language came when Devaney had an epiphany while listening to OMD’s “Electricity.” It wasn’t simply that he felt drawn to the aesthetic, that the rediscovery of music from immediately before his own life struck some chord. “Electricity” set him on a path, reimagining his own approach as a songwriter while trying to decode the sources of his new language.

“It occurred to me that a moment in time existed when it seemed everyone still had a kind of ‘beginner’s mind’ about how synthesizers could be used and fit into the musical landscape,” he explained in a comment accompanying the announcement of Introduction, Presence. “They were wielding this technology as a blunt instrument, and it felt like I had been given permission to do the same.” He went on to explain that much of Nation Of Language’s music — much of the material that wound up on Introduction, Presence — was made without extensive knowledge of how these instruments actually worked.

On some level, you can hear that joy of exploration throughout the album — the feeling like there were whole new horizons to chase all over again. But, on the other, it’s hard to believe that there was anything primitive in the making of these songs. So much supposedly “’80s-indebted” indie becomes washed-out, pale echoes of the glory days. Introduction, Presence does not fall into the same trap. Nation Of Language have enough control over and understanding of their chosen idiom to make it their own.

Some of these songs are deceptively dense, and you can find yourself relistening over and over and still discovering some new gorgeous synth buried within. From the city-light glimmers of “On Division St.” to the corroded psychedelia of the long outro of “Indignities,” every song plays like an impossible pile-up of melodies and textures that are, somehow, streamlined into these ruthless little pop mechanisms. “Friend Machine” alone is a marvel of layers — the crystalline pops leading into the chorus, the slithering groove, and the eventual rippling rhythm that first bounces off hiccuping piano accents before propelling the song through its final chorus.

Devaney’s sense of history impacts not just the forms of his music, but also the themes. He gently references all kinds of tropes from krautrock/post-punk/early new wave, the machinery of life both spiritual and literal. The insistent pulse of “Automobile” becomes a backdrop for a strained conversation between lovers. In a way, each quote of his forebears’ own grappling with the new technology of the era is a lens through which to consider our own great digital leaps. “Friend Machine” could’ve played as a people-as-robots club jam 40 years ago, a come-on recoding seduction as a mathematical equation; here, the simplicity of the term “Friend Machine” accentuates our collective addiction to social media, and the banality inherent to it.

Elsewhere, timelines collapse entirely. “The Motorist” takes part of its inspiration (and its single cover) from a photo Devaney’s father shot of a film set in ’80s Manhattan, but also deals with Devaney’s own feeling of removal from old friends — through a screen, through social media curation, through the closed environment of a solitary car moving through the world. It flips the archetypal American iconography of car-as-freedom towards just another mechanical box that closes you off from other people. But then it also takes place in the car on the film set, with degrees of removal from your own perception. “The sun is low/ I watch them move/ Drifting scene to scene/ The basic plot is lost on me/ But all the shots are clean,” Devaney muses. The whole thing is refractions and reflections, folding in on top of each other.

Watching your own life from outside — if there’s a throughline to Introduction, Presence, this is it. Whether in depictions of new romance, or of listless and depleted young adulthood, or even while inhabiting the persona of a conservative warped by online propaganda for “Indignities,” Devaney’s writing taps into that feeling of time passing faster and faster while you simply feel increasingly disconnected from yourself. “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/ Flipping through the same old books/ But you’re reading less,” Devaney howls in the chorus of “September Again,” capturing an all-too-familiar sensation of complacent meandering through life as the years tumble by.

The struggle to feel like your life has actually started runs through Introduction, Presence. And perhaps that, too, is a classic existential concern — Devaney had previously explored similar ideas in early, non-album Nation Of Language singles, like the numbing commute vs. fantasy worlds of “Reality” or the dreams of starting a new life in a faraway place that dominate “I’ve Thought About Chicago.” But there’s also something very specific to our times in how Devaney portrays it. The distortion of social media and the digital backlog of history may all seem like run-of-the-mill afflictions to us now, but that’s exactly the point — it’s the kind of insidiousness through which you find yourself waking up five years later wondering why your life hasn’t changed at all. That’s really what Devaney is doing: using pre-established structures to pull at well-known experiences, but reexamining them in a time where everything feels shinier, and more catalogued, and more ordered, but somehow blurrier than ever.

Devaney called Introduction, Presence a “space to openly ache for something.” And he does that throughout, desperate for connection or a concrete sense of himself. Between that and the album collecting these different songs that span years, there’s an open-endedness. What little resolution can be offered is in all the beauty of how it’s rendered, how each song feels like an exorcism through pure melancholic outpouring or through danceable rhythms and infectious melodies.

Every now and then, some bit of suggested revelation peeks through. It’s in strange moments, like the climactic ending of opener “Tournament”: “There’s people on the phone/ You need to tell them what you want/ Laying on your side/ Your words have never felt so far off.” It’s a plain scene, it could mean anything, but Devaney sings it with this resonant power. (Speaking of the National, it’s a moment in which his cadences particularly echo Matt Berninger’s.) But if there’s a destination on the album it starts right here, at its beginning — taking the mundane and making it feel like a grand reckoning, taking the dead-ends of our lives and reanimating them with the colors and mystery stolen from the past.

Perhaps there isn’t a chronological story to Introduction, no distinct arc, just as there isn’t in life. In the album’s stunning closer “The Wall & I,” Devaney is still apart, a ghost passing around other people’s lives: “I am only dust in this light.” But the whole song is a surging, powerful thing, a constant build towards the final release of the album’s most moving chorus. It is as “end credits music” as they come, the kind of song you imagine in the background as you narrativize your own life. But this time, the movie’s different. Once more, Introduction, Presence takes you outside of yourself, but suddenly it isn’t dislocation but transformation. Suddenly it’s not watching life unfold at arm’s length, but feeling life anew, vivid and overwhelming.

Nation Of Language’s debut is, true to its name, a sort of introductory statement. In many ways you could perceive it as a collection of vignettes more than a linear narrative from point A to point B. But by the end, something coalesces — the band discovers its voice, and uses that voice to draw lines from past to present and future, making each small or momentous struggle feel equally evocative. It comes together into a work that feels born of and for a certain passage in life: when you have the nagging sense of no longer being young but not knowing what real life is even supposed to look like anymore, when you are starting to feel as if you’re too young to have anything figured out but too old to still be thinking that way.

“I stared up the wall and he said/ ‘I don’t know’ is not an answer to the question,” Devaney sings in “The Wall & I.” It’s a bit of a manifesto for the longing that runs through Introduction, Presence, but it’s a trick, too. These are the kinds of songs that start to feel like that answer: the sound of your life rushing by and the snapshots you manage to save, piecing them together to figure out who you’re supposed to become.

Introduction, Presence is out 5/22. You can buy it here.

Other albums of note out this week:

• The 1975’s long-awaited Notes On A Conditional Form, which we’ll talk about more soon.
• Woods’ characteristically warm, psych-tinged indie endeavor Strange To Explain.
• Steve Earle & The Dukes’ Ghosts Of West Virginia, a sister project to Earle’s music for the play Coal Country.
• Throwing Muses’ first album in seven years, Sun Racket.
• Indigo Girls’ first album in five years, Look Long.
• Moodymann’s Sinner followup, Taken Away.
• Gunna’s as-yet-unheard Wunna.
• Grizzly Bear’s Christopher Bear’s debut as Fools, Fools’ Harp Vol. 1.
• Tim Burgess’ latest solo outing, I Love The New Sky.
• Bill Nace’s improvisational/experimental Both.
• Harrington, Gustin, & Zahn’s Tura Lura.
• Roadside Graves’ That’s Why We’re Running Away.
• Katie Von Schleicher’s latest, Consummation.

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