The Story Behind Every Song On Nation Of Language’s New Album A Way Forward
Last year, Nation Of Language released their debut album Introduction, Presence in the middle of May — just in time for frontman Ian Devaney’s thirtieth birthday, and right around the time we were starting to creep out of lockdown and see each other again. This wasn’t the original plan: It had been slated for April, and then pushed back thinking they might still get to play a release show in May. Of course, that didn’t go as planned either. Little of the last year and a half has, and you can only imagine the amount of up-and-coming bands who got cut off at the knees, releasing albums that represented years of hard work and incremental growth and then not being able to tour behind them.
Bizarrely, things still worked out pretty well for Nation Of Language. People found Introduction, Presence anyway. And on the other side of the pandemic, the Brooklyn trio — also featuring Devaney’s wife Aidan Noell on synths, and bassist Michael Sui-Poi — have become noticeably bigger, selling out shows around the country. Also on the other side of the pandemic, they have another new album already, arriving just in time for fans who have found NOL in the last year and hadn’t been able to catch them on the road yet.
That album, A Way Forward, was actually germinating for quite some time. Introduction, Presence was one of those albums that felt like a collection of early singles, an imagined greatest hits — banger after banger, a consistent aesthetic but with each song trying on a different idea. Those developed as NOL were playing shows around NYC, cutting their teeth and building up their name. But at the same time, several years ago, Devaney began working on material that would become a different family of songs. This time, he was looking further back — to Kraftwerk and krautrock and foundational synthesizer music.
If Introduction, Presence was a bold, bright tribute to the classic era of new wave, A Way Forward is often a blearier album, exhuming more primitive drum machines and synths and combining them with trippier ambience without entirely foregoing the danceability and muscularity the band displayed on their debut. You will have already gotten a sense of this from advance singles, particularly “This Fractured Mind” and “The Grey Commute.” But the band also held back some of the album’s best songs and biggest surprises for release day: the swooning head fog of “Miranda,” the haunting and sprawling “Former Self,” the psychedelic lovelorn daydream of “Whatever You Want,” another mesmerizing album finale in “They’re Beckoning.” Altogether, A Way Forward in some ways echoes its predecessor, in that each song stretches out in a different direction, chases a different idea. But at the same time, it feels like Devaney has crafted an album that has more of a complete arc to it, an album-length journey through listlessness and shadows and memories.
Ahead of the album’s release, we caught up with Devaney in Brooklyn and asked him the story behind each song on A Way Forward. Now that you can hear it for yourself, check it out and read along below.
1. “In Manhattan”
IAN DEVANEY: I think it sets the tone in a nice way for me. There’s something more subdued about it. I often like when there’s a track that welcomes you into things. That one is very triangular in shape, it basically goes up and up and up and everything swells, then you build to this moment. It’s mostly about building up the emotion right away. It also helps because, similar to the first album, I like the idea that A Way Forward lives in New York. I like that the record has a sense of place around here.
You have had New York songs before, like “On Division St.”–
DEVANEY: Although everyone thinks about whatever city they live in, because every city has a Division St. Especially Chicago.
“In Manhattan” has a lot I relate to. I feel like it comes from those early years living here where you are kind of reckoning with fantasy vs. reality — the “Strung along by a fiction/ Read it in a magazine” sentiment.
DEVANEY: “On Division St.” is definitely more of a romantic song, and this one is definitely more of a disenchantment thing. Reckoning with the expectation of what you thought it was going to be like vs. what it’s actually like, both in terms of a lot of things being harder and crummier than you think and the inaccessibility you can feel in so many ways. A friend visits for the weekend and by the end of it you come out like, “Where has all my money gone?” It feels like, in other places, it wouldn’t happen as severely.
I feel like I had to come to terms with the fact that I couldn’t just go out and have fun all the time. When you’re living outside of New York and you’re thinking of what it’s going to be like, I personally thought I was going to be out at bars all the time, having fun all the time, and it just isn’t. There’s still elements you can romanticize, but it’s basically realizing the board is just nothing like what you thought. Some things are great, and some things are not, but it’s often not how you expected it to line up.
How long ago did you write this one?
DEVANEY: I started writing it in 2018. I moved here in 2014. It took a few years before I settled into being “someone who lives in New York.” There was definitely unsure footing for a long time. I knew I wasn’t going to leave, but I couldn’t figure out how to move within the space around me. It just took time and a few jobs, and having a bike, using the bus, having to go to different places than I did when I first moved here. Seeing how everything connects and where I fit in it.
Now several years after this was written, with Nation Of Language becoming a more successful New York band, do you have a different feeling towards the place? Like, if there’s a sense of place on this album, was it a reclamation of the idea this is where you needed to be?
DEVANEY: I definitely am inspired here still. I can even use the disillusionment as inspiration. Using it for all its parts is definitely something I try to do in any aspect of life. The shittiest things happening to you are more ammunition in some sense. There’s always that silver lining somewhere, even if you’re not seeing it in that exact moment.
Coming back from this tour after being everywhere else, I said to Aidan, “We’re going to have to watch a couple movies that romanticize New York for me again.” It was really nice being in New Mexico. It was really nice being in Minnesota. I’m definitely still susceptible to falling in love with New York again and again. But it was a very stark thing of coming back from this tour where we got to see so much, and then immediately — it took 30 minutes to get six blocks to our apartment and everyone was laying on their horns. Like, alright, we’re back. It slaps you right in the face.
2. “Across That Fine Line”
Why was this the lead single?
DEVANEY: I knew I wanted it to be second [on the album] and the first track would be an introduction, so in some ways this felt like the “welcome to the rest of the album” song. That being the first song released, when people listen to it in sequence there will be that friend, when the door actually opens. There’s a lot of energy to it, and it brings something different in terms of having guitar more than any Nation Of Language song had before.
This is a relationship song — or, about the moment where you are teetering into one.
DEVANEY: Right, someone you’re just friends with and you’re like, “Wait a second … are we about to make out?” [Laughs] Just that feeling of being on unsure footing and the thrill and confusion and possibility of that kind of moment. As the music was coming together — originally, there was a moment where it was going to be much darker thematically. I had the main line, “I’m watching you walk across that fine line,” and I was like, “This is either going to be about something fun, or addiction.” When I looked at the music, I was like, “I don’t think I want to write a peppy song about addiction.” [Laughs] If I’m going to go there, this won’t be the music that backs it up.
There’s also the line from “In Manhattan,” “Another hymn to addictions/ That you move between.” Was addiction something on your mind?
DEVANEY: There’s a degree to which it hangs somewhere in my head all the time. I feel like as I get older I am finding more and more people in my life engaged in some kind of conflict with things they can’t let go of. That’s not substance 100 percent of the time, it could just be behavior. It’s definitely a low hum behind everything in a lot of ways.
It then becoming a relationship song though — what is the spectrum of autobiographical or fictional in Nation Of Language songs? Like, is this about you meeting Aidan? Or is it watching other people cross that line?
DEVANEY: Well, it’s about watching that person cross that line towards you. [Laughs] Most songs are not about one specific experience, but rather the collective emotion that all those experiences scattered through young adulthood build together to. I would say when I met Aidan, there wasn’t any extended period where we were friends. We knew pretty much right away something was going on there. More like scattered throughout the rest of my life, picking moments and memories and sewing them together.
3. “Wounds Of Love”
You cited Kraftwerk as an influence here, but it also feels like another one of your primary influences, OMD.
DEVANEY: To me it feels OMD-ish… there’s a bit of a more conscious decision to go for a kind of classic pop songwriting. That’s something they were able to do very well. The Kraftwerk thing was really that main riff. I wanted to write something that felt like it could be on Man Machine, and that got wedded with the pop song concept.
Originally it was meant to be a much more robotic song.
DEVANEY: It’s funny, I was just listening to a thing recently where they were talking about Kraftwerk and how it’s very cold and robotic but at the same time it’s kind of funky and they were trying to figure out how they were able to do that. When I first made it, it was only the cold parts of the Kraftwerk-ness. So then it was bringing in a bit of rhythmic synth in the background, to take the straight beat and give it a bit of groove.
When we spoke in 2018, one of the formative notions of Nation Of Language was falling in love with the synthesizer and going back to the sort of formative texts — new wave. So Introduction, Presence always seemed like it was looking to the sort of peak early ‘80s new wave, the lush and romantic stuff. And on this new one I feel like you are looking further back, to a sort of proto-synth-pop, almost the prologue.
DEVANEY: Yeah, the ancient runes. It was pretty intentional. One thing I have been thinking about and played into this on some level: It’s been really interesting to me, as we get to know more bands, who also draw [on similar influences]. If the first record is very early ‘80s synth inspired, we’ve been meeting more bands who are inspired by those bands but pull something different out of it. We can both be looking at the same song and it’ll be like, “Oh, that? That’s what got you most?” Glove would be a good example: It feels like we both like the same bands and like each other’s bands, but they’re on the darker, punkier side of things.
It became an interesting thought like, this was also the case back then when all these bands were listening to Kraftwerk. So if I go back to that, is there something I might take from it that’s different than what they took from it? That probably sounds a little self-aggrandizing. [Laughs] It was just an interesting thought experiment. I think there’s also a natural tendency to keep digging backwards. If I had started with listening to Kraftwerk, I don’t think I would’ve been able to get into it as effectively as I did through the lens of those early new wave bands. You come to understand it better, in some sense, with that step.
This is a breakup song. I often think of breakups like, that exact version of you ceases because you are a specific person with that person, and you carry that with you but you are also fundamentally different afterwards. I felt like I heard some of that in the themes of this song, like still being tied to this person and not yet figuring out a new identity.
DEVANEY: I think that can be even harder when it feels like you are participating in the same scene, in some ways. When you’re seeing this person all the time, and you never have the chance to have some kind of clean break. Oftentimes, seeing the person regularly can give you this false sense that you’ll fall into your old ways together because of exposure.
This one is a little more about someone else that I know. But I have had, in particular, one breakup where I just didn’t move on for a while. That scene aspect wasn’t a part of it so much, but it was the sort of thing where I had gotten to know that version of myself that was in the relationship so well, afterwards I had no idea what to do besides continue to try to relate to that person in some way. The song is a bit of me, and a bit of other people I know, who kind of can’t let go of that version of themselves even when it becomes fairly clear it’s not going to happen.
DEVANEY: I like to refer to this song as “The Great American Road Trip Song, Dirtbag Edition.” I was thinking about the Vampire Weekend song “Hannah Hunt” and “America” by Simon & Garfunkel. I wanted that sense of fuzzed-out traveling brain in the song. The protagonist is partially the worst versions of myself, partially a fictional character. It’s definitely a song about aimlessness and someone who can’t really commit to anything and doesn’t really have a good relationship to other people or the world around them.
So they’re on the road as a way of avoiding those things.
DEVANEY: Yeah, yeah.
Is there a particular person Miranda is based on?
DEVANEY: It’s not based on any one person. I liked talking about Tennessee. I feel like you don’t often have synth songs that talk about Tennessee. It’s usually thought of as a big city format. I remember we played a basement show in Nashville and it was really great. Connecting with the people there, they were like, “Bands like you don’t come through here, and it’s so frustrating because it’s not as if people here don’t listen to synth music.” It has a special place in my head, as a place that felt like it deserved a synth ballad.
5. “The Grey Commute”
When this came out, you talked a lot about politics and capitalism as defining themes.
DEVANEY: I first started writing it in 2017, when the Republican tax plan passed. It was similar to how they were always trying to repeal Obamacare and once they actually had power they couldn’t do it. It was like the dog who caught the car, they had no fucking idea. It was just a talking point for all that time. Apparently with the tax plan it was the same sort of thing. They were like, “Oh, shit.” The thing that ended up passing was basically written for them by the CEO of FedEx. Just handed to them. After that passed, FedEx were owed money by the government instead of having to pay a billion dollars in taxes.
It was one of those things that was so frustrating. You’ll talk about policies you want to pass that shouldn’t be considered ambitious but people are always like “Well, how are you going to pay for it?” Well, that billion dollars is a good fucking start. I think, particularly, when this song was written — I go through periods of paying too much attention to the news that send me into these doom loops in my head. “The Grey Commute” is the only positive thing that’s come from those doom loops, creatively. I’ve never been able to write a song before that felt like it touched on politics that didn’t feel forced or cheesy.
That’s interesting you say that. I guess this is inspired by actual political maneuvers, but to me there was a through line from “Indignities” to “A Different Kind Of Life” to this. Some of those are more social or whatever, but I was actually going to ask whether state-of-the-world type stuff was becoming a bigger motivation in your writing.
DEVANEY: True, I wasn’t thinking about “A Different Kind Of Life” when I said that. “Indignities” is tied to this one in the sense that they both deal with culture wars; “Indignities” is about watching too much Fox News. It’s very sociological and not based on anything that happened in politics. “A Different Kind Of Life” is a political song, where I’m talking about Donald Trump. “The Grey Commute,” it’s the first one that got into the part of politics you would not think to [write about] — like, economic policy. It’s not a super sexy thing to write about. But it’s still tied in with social themes of consumerism and commercialism.
To me it kind of connects back to “In Manhattan,” just being young and beaten down by coming of age under late capitalism.
DEVANEY: I think that’s also an aspect that runs into “They’re Beckoning” at the end.
I want to talk about the aesthetic of the album again. “The Grey Commute” was sort of the genesis point for A Way Forward’s overall sound.
DEVANEY: In some ways, yeah. This was an early song where I said, “OK, this will be an anchor for how the rest of the record goes.” It’s almost too on the nose, but: “Hiroshima Mon Amour” by Ultravox is one of my favorite songs ever. I was like, “I have to figure out what those drum machines are.” Using that as a sonic template, the feel of those older drum machines before they got as fleshed out. We brought it into the punchier kick-snare sound in the course of recording. Originally, it was a much smaller song. I think the frustration that’s inherent in the song was served well by how it ended up turning out. It’s a bit more muscular, resolute.
A lot of these songs go a ways back, well before Introduction, Presence was even on the horizon. That album came out in the thick of the early pandemic, and got an oddly warm reception — garnering all these new fans even at a time when the band was not really that known of a quantity and couldn’t tour behind their debut. It’s a real aberration of a story. So you have this album go well, and this second one in the chamber that changes things up. At any point did you have anxiety about whether people would be receptive to it?
DEVANEY: Not really. Because I’ve come to realize I’m not a great judge of whether or not I’m writing … I knew this was a little different from the first record, and at various times I felt like it wasn’t very different at all. What the first record seemed like it taught us was, it was all following my instincts. I don’t know what else to do but to keep following those instincts. Especially with “The Wall & I.” We were going to release Introduction, Presence, pushed it, released a few more singles, one of those being “The Wall & I.” Which ends up being the biggest song even though it was never going to be a single had the album not been pushed.
My bewilderment that that became the song everyone grabbed onto — I was like, “I don’t know anything.” [Laughs] I know I liked that song. I didn’t know anyone else would like it. So I might as well just keep going with what feels interesting to me. I was never under the impression I was making the same record again, but it just felt like a nudging out of what Nation Of Language was. I never wanted to make it seem like I was refuting the first record in some way. I think they live nicely together and show different sides of what the band is and allow plenty of space for us to keep following different roads.
Now that you have these two albums down that establish that, is this a pattern you want Nation Of Language to follow going forward? Like, each record toying with different ideas and styles?
DEVANEY: I don’t really know yet. I know that I don’t want to go as immediately into the third record as I did the second. But I don’t think I would’ve gone as immediately into the second were it not for the pandemic anyway. There are certain pillar bands where there will always be little glimpses of them in every Nation Of Language record. It’s just whether that dial is at two or 10. Like, Kraftwerk is a foundational artist for this band. OMD is a foundational artist. Talking Heads, My Bloody Valentine, Yo La Tango. All these bands that inspire me so much that there’ll always be a piece of that going on, and it’s just about what amount sneaks in.
Is it still too early to say where that balance might land with where you’re going next?
DEVANEY: For demos I have so far, they are still definitely movements within those songs where someone could be like, “He’s going for a Kraftwerk synth sound there.” To me that’s the pinnacle of what a synth can sound like, how they used it. I could see there being an acoustic album and suddenly there’s a big synth arpeggio that flies in because I couldn’t keep the Kraftwerk out of it.
6. “This Fractured Mind”
DEVANEY: This is the sad townie anthem. It harkens a bit back to almost the early days of Nation Of Language, when I didn’t really know it was going to be a band. I was just living in New Jersey and delivering pizza. The bones of this song were created back then, in 2014. It was still when I was a little more aimless in terms of how to achieve various styles with intention.
It had been thrown in the demo bin, and I found it again while we were making this record and was like “Oh, shit.” Not knowing what I was doing [back then], it’s a very motorik beat song [that worked for A Way Forward]. The synth sounds weren’t right, but if I changed them a bit it lived in that krautrock world. I could re-address the lyrics and flesh the song out and I felt like it could help serve the general album theme.
So it was almost an accident this ended up on the album.
DEVANEY: Yeah, if I hadn’t come across that demo. It was pretty random. I’ll go through and sort through demos and unfinished Logic files but I don’t usually dig that far back. We had already started recording and that popped up and I was like, “Oh, wow, thank god.”
Going back to the sad townie theme — this was after your old band Static Jacks had bottomed out, so this is like early/mid-twenties disenchantment?
DEVANEY: Yeah I was probably 24ish.
I ended up back home for a little around that same time in my life, and there was a sense of like “Well, shit, was that it? Am I just back here now?” Were you there thinking you wouldn’t be pursuing music anymore?
DEVANEY: For sure. There’s a part of me that was like, “What’s wrong with that? What’s wrong with ending up back in your town?” But there was another part of me that was like, “But I wasn’t shooting for this.” When I left college, it wasn’t to feel like I then flamed out and was just hanging around 7/11. The song is a bit of me and a bit of a character in some ways. It was an interesting time of self-reflection. What am I actually wanting, what can I do to feel more fulfilled, would I be open to that taking me places I didn’t expect to go?
7. “Former Self”
This is the big left turn of the album.
DEVANEY: I wanted something that was not as regular kick-snare driven. I wanted to live more in synth music world. The synth arpeggio is what it’s about, and everything else is in support of that. It was written on acoustic guitar. I had just recently gotten a nylon string acoustic, and I was messing around with learning finger-picking. The arpeggio here is what I was drilling on guitar, and all these changes came to me while I wasn’t even really paying attention. It felt like something I wouldn’t have thought to do if I had been like, “I’m going to sit down to write a song.” Then I figured out all the notes I was playing and sent them to the synths and put it together.
There’s a fun aspect of this song, in the support percussion. Have you ever watched the Miyazaki movies, the Studio Ghibli stuff? In a lot of them, whenever there is some sort of large machine going, it feels like it’s a combination of machine sounds but also someone being like psssshhh-psssshhh. That’s something I was playing with in the rhythm of this song. Some of the sounds were just me. It’s both robotic and human at the same time. Also, one of the sounds in “Former Self” is the same sample as the big drum hit in “Indignities.”
It’s interesting this was written on guitar and transferred to synth, because one of the things you talked about in originally introducing Nation Of Language was that you used to be in a guitar band but had reached a point where if you wrote on guitar the same song kept coming out. So there was that beginner’s mind in discovering and writing on the synth. This song melds those two.
DEVANEY: It’s a type of guitar I never considered playing before. There’s just these natural patterns you go into. If I pick up the nylon string guitar, I go into the pattern from “Former Self.” If I decided I would write by finger-picking from now on, I would really have to challenge myself to not have every song come out like “Former Self.”
This comes right after “This Fractured Mind,” which is a former self dwelling on a former self. Does this reflect on a particular time?
DEVANEY: In terms of the album sequence, I hadn’t thought about how those two work together but they do. “Fractured Mind” is the person before they have broken out of their comfort zone, and “Former Self” is kind of coming from a “I did it, I dreamed of something greater for myself, but I never actually hit it, I settled in a different way.” In some ways, when I actually think of my younger self I’m like, “Wow, can you imagine?” All these things you wanted, they are actually happening now in some way or another. I wanted to flip that. What did not work the way you thought, or what if none of this had worked out at all — what would you say to that younger self? What would they think if they looked at you now?
How does that play into the fact that the title from the album comes from this song?
DEVANEY: Oftentimes when one wants to name an album, you go through all the lyrics and see what stands out and feels like it could stand on its own. There was part of me that also liked the idea that, for a lot of people this song will sit back more. Not wanting it to be overlooked, I thought it would be cool if the title came from “Former Self,” so there’s a beam of light on it at all times. Coming across that line, I thought it felt really good. It’s the emotional peak of that song. Both sonically and in terms of the confusion of the pandemic and everything, it felt like a moving phrase to me.
Everything else I could think of, there was some box where I was like “Oh, that sounds nifty, but it really doesn’t mean very much by itself.” That song is about feeling lost and wanting that way forward. That lost-ness is something that pops up throughout the album. The other title I had in my notebook for a while was A Realistic Image. I thought it sounded cool but I just kept thinking, “Why is this album a realistic image?” And it was like… “I dunno.” [Laughs]
8. “Whatever You Want”
DEVANEY: It lives in a similar space as “Across That Fine Line,” but it’s a bit more about obsession and being drawn to someone who is just not drawn to you. But still getting the thrill, that jolt, of realizing you’re drawn to someone. There’s a bit of a celebration, even if it’s not reciprocated — like, “Oh, I’m capable of this.” I feel like it always makes one feel youthful to be drawn to someone in that way.
In some of the press materials, you talked about trying to marry real driving, motorik rhythms with ambient spaciousness. This one leans in the latter. It’s always sounded like a reflection shimmering on a lake to me.
DEVANEY: It is in that latter camp but it’s also the same thing repeating the whole time. In that sense, it’s a little like “The Wall & I,” where it’s a shimmery thing but it’s the same synth arpeggio going always. Everything else is just changing around it. It’s shrinking and morphing but those notes are still hitting. I get so much satisfaction out of keeping something constant and dancing around it, seeing how it looks from different angles. Like, bring these angelic background vocals into it and now these notes mean something totally different to me now that all these voices are there. That synth bass step-down thing, that was a moment where I was just like, hands in the air, like “This feels so good!” And those notes are still marching along in the background.
There is real chaos in the guitar at the end. In the studio I was trying to do some guitar things and in the end I think I just used the guitar from when I was writing it at home, which I think was the first take. You’re hearing the creation of it in the final version. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it just felt good in terms of — there’s a euphoria with the voices and this strange electrified weirdness running through. I felt like it served the manic excitement of the song, where it’s pleasing in one sense but then sort of bizarre and atonal in another.
9. “A Word & A Wave”
In the press quote for this song, you said “A Word & A Wave” was about a person who tried to make everyone around them happy, but did little for themselves and ended up feeling spent and empty.
DEVANEY: Yeah, wanting to be there for everyone even if it’s in the smallest ways and just how draining that can be in the long run. Everything that the person is doing, they’re trying to keep everyone OK. They’re always watering their plant making sure that’s alive. In some sense, just being trapped by that.
In terms of me wanting the album to have a sense of place in New York, this is the one that doesn’t fit into that as much, in my own head. When I was writing it, I was picturing this person being in a small, warmly lit bedroom in Portland, Maine. That was why we went up to Portland when it came time to make the video. The only thing I knew about this song is that that’s where the person was in my head.
Why? Had you been there before?
DEVANEY: I had been there like twice before. I really don’t know why. I don’t think I’m going to learn why.
I knew I wanted to make a video for each single that came out, but I always felt like it wasn’t my place. I had never made videos before. I don’t have the language to convey my thoughts effectively in that format. So there was a bit of wanting to feel like I was growing artistically in some way. It was a bit of resistance to the status quo of how I make things.
For the song, it started out much shorter. I often have vignette songs and I often assume they’re going to stay that way. In my head, I was like, “It’ll be this album of kraut-y songs and we’ll break it up with dreamy segues.” As we were working on the song, the person who produced this one and half the album — Nick Millhiser from Holy Ghost! — was saying, “I really like this and it feels like it can go somewhere else.” There are songs that can be purpose-built to be short and it can be satisfying. He felt like it was a song that wanted to be long and I just hadn’t finished it. Uncharacteristically, for me, I sat down on the couch and I only had the first grouping of words but I knew exactly what I was going to say for the second half. It took me five minutes to get the second verse down, which is not usually how things happen.
There’s a voice in my head always saying “People won’t have patience for your synth exploration at the end. Maybe I should just cut it off and keep it as compact as possible.” But then I tried to pull back in those moments and ask, “What’s the spirit of the album?” The spirit of the album is exploring early electronic music, krautrock. What would Laurie Spiegel do? She would not just end the music right after the lyrics. I mean, she wouldn’t even have lyrics. But the end of that song, it was this really fun thing where everything’s fading in and out and we’re running around the studio as it’s being recorded into the computer, flipping switches and turning knobs.
As someone who thinks of himself mostly as a pop songwriter — not in the capital-P pop music sense, but I don’t think of myself as an instrumental songwriter — it was really nice to grant myself that permission of, all these sounds are interesting to me and I’m stepping into ground I don’t usually let myself step in if I’m working by myself. There’s a lot of fond memories of making that one in the studio. It felt like I was allowing myself to be more than myself, in some sense.
10. “They’re Beckoning”
This also began life as a vignette.
DEVANEY: That’s another one, that same feeling came up. Of all the songs, that came in the most uncooked. I really wasn’t sure it was going to end up on the album so it was like, “Yeah, let’s have fun. Probably won’t use whatever comes out, but we’ll see.” With each progressive step we took, I was like, “Oh, shit, that was cool. Maybe we do this,” and Nick would say, “If we do that, what about this, write some more words in this part.” You felt that joy of creation in the moment where you really never knew what the next step was going to hold.
Oftentimes that feeling of satisfaction you get in the studio is, at least for me, different than the satisfaction that happens when you’re in that writing mode at home before you get there. To have that sort of spontaneity happening in the other context was very electrifying. A fun thing about this song is it was composed based on the clicking of a heat pipe in my apartment. I recreated it. I think I tried to see if my mic cable was long enough for me to get from my computer but I couldn’t get over there.
You mentioned earlier there’s a thematic connection to “The Grey Commute.” In “They’re Beckoning,” there are lines about them announcing something to buy, about pyramid schemes. Is there a narrative reason this sits at the end of the album?
DEVANEY: As we were making it, I was trying to characterize how the end of the song felt to me. I was like, “You know, it’s like someone’s laying you down to die and they’re like ‘Shhhh.’” And Nick was like, “Whoa, I was going to say driving into the sunset.” And I was like “OK, yeah, yeah, yeah, we’ll go with that.” [Laughs]
There’s a bit of a last breath to the song. The title is a reference to the Walkmen. They have a song called “They’re Winning.” I love that song and I always thought that was the best, most defeated title for a song. For this song, the “they” is what we feel like is wrong with throwaway culture and late capitalist anxiety. In my head, that’s the grim reaper just being like, “Just come this way, lay your head down, give up.” The song is getting increasingly crazed as it’s going and ends with what feels like this death.
It’s such a weird song structurally, but at the same time it’s super propulsive and it has this transporting chorus… To me, it’s kind of “The Wall & I” within the world of this album. Not just because it’s the closer, but if you’re using the building blocks of this album’s blurrier nature, then this would be how the climactic anthem sounds. Though I guess “The Wall & I” also had this kind of National-esque ennui.
DEVANEY: I guess I like ending records in kind of a beat down. [Laughs]
Well, I was going to ask whether there was any moment of triumph, like when you get to the chorus — or if, yeah, this is sort of a crash landing of an ending.
DEVANEY: I think it is a crash landing, but in a way that isn’t overtly violent and bloody. The hush with the pillow being put over your face. Which is tragic and comforting at the same time, kind of? It does a weird thing, and so does “Wall & I,” in that way.
One of my favorite album closers from when I was college age was “Albert Camus” by Titus Andronicus. I feel like that does a similar kind of thing. When that song ends, you definitely feel like there’s a bit of triumph to it but the last lines are him screaming and there’s this little denouement. There’s probably a part of me that’s just so attached to that sort of grandiose death at the end of the album. You feel sad that it’s over. I wanted to try to achieve that sort of thing.
And then everything is fixed and happy by the beginning of the third album.
DEVANEY: [Laughs] We’ll see.
A Way Forward is out now.