We are here today to talk about Neon Golden. Of course we are. Released 20 years ago today, it is the crowning achievement of the Notwist’s career — a breathtaking work of art, a game-changing masterpiece, the kind of album that inspires rapturous praise and looms over an artist’s entire discography (even if they’d rather it not). Soon, I will pile lots more hyperbole upon it. But first we need to talk about the Notwist’s grunge-metal era.
Given the legend that has developed around Neon Golden, it stands to reason that the vast majority of people who’ve checked out the Notwist’s self-titled debut album have done so by working backwards. You hear Neon Golden — tender and majestic, achingly beautiful, a pioneering work in the fusion of indie rock and electronic pop — and then you decide to see if the back catalog holds up. And then you press play on The Notwist and are greeted with hulking power chords, ripping metallic riffs, viscerally burly drumming, even pinch harmonics! It is confusing, and, once you process it, hilarious. Not that the music on The Notwist is bad per se, but knowing the same people responsible for this hearty mishmash of Metallica, Nirvana, and Dinosaur Jr. later gave us Neon Golden, you have to laugh.
1992’s Nook begins on a similarly beefy and aggressive note, but it quickly reveals a group whose metamorphosis has already begun. By 1995’s 12, the Notwist had mellowed out significantly and were beginning to accent their melodious indie rock with electronics. Next, they added programmer Martin Gretschmann, aka Console, and pushed even farther into the digital realm on 1998’s Shrink, an album that found them toying around with IDM, post-rock, trip-hop, krautrock, and more. From there, they quite naturally progressed onward to the record that would seal their legend. “With Neon Golden we more or less continued what we started to try on 12 and Shrink,” singer-guitarist Markus Acher wrote in 2008.
Acher’s self-assessment rings true. By the end of the ’90s, the Notwist had already incorporated most or all of the elements that made Neon Golden feel so revolutionary — Acher’s meek, plaintive vocals sighing within dynamic guitar-pop songs infused with glitchy beats, prone to proggy left turns and seasoned with less-is-more orchestral flourishes that sometimes made the music feel like futuristic chamber-pop. Neon Golden caught on because it found the band refining and perfecting that sound, deploying it in service of incredibly well-crafted pop songs that never let their inherent weirdness get in the way of their transcendent power. Listening back, their entire ’90s output was building toward this one remarkable achievement — though notably, the band has fiercely resisted this interpretation, seemingly annoyed by how completely this LP has come to overshadow the rest of their catalog.
How perfect, then, that Neon Golden begins with a song called “One Step Inside Doesn’t Mean You Understand.” Its first few seconds are the sound of a record awaking from slumber or cautiously emerging from a hiding place: First some stray violin plucks pierce the quiet, then Acher’s gentle narration and some softly rendered keyboard and guitar. Suddenly the music’s pulse quickens, a shadow is cast, and a deconstructed beat drops, pounding and clattering without ever cohering into something danceable. By the time the song descends into symphonic-electronic brooding, Acher is almost whispering his passive aggression: “In your world my feet are out of step/ And my arms won’t move, my hands won’t grab/ I will never read your stupid map/ So don’t call me incomplete/ You’re the freak.” He spends the majority of the track languishing in silence as the forlorn instrumental builds and breaks, like Kanye West licking his wounds through the back half of “Say You Will.”
By then we’ve entered into the album’s intoxicating blend of organic and synthetic: all the instruments and subgenres in the Notwist’s arsenal transmuted into a unique holistic sound, an aesthetic that remains constant even as its components are in flux. The club-ready “Pilot” is soaring pop-rock with a skittering exoskeleton, while the tense “This Room” (a retroactive pandemic theme song if there ever was one) leans much harder into beats and bleary textures, even as strategically deployed guitar chords and piano melodies float behind Acher’s voice. The programming is almost an afterthought on “One With The Freaks,” one of the more exhilarating guitar-pop tracks you’ll ever hear, whereas the gorgeous “Off The Rails” is defined by everything but the guitar: digital depth charges, flickering keyboards, an elegant string section, each sound moving in and out of the frame in graceful choreography worthy of the Stuttgart Ballet.
Despite all the stylistic and technological innovations at play, Acher’s singing is central to this music’s appeal, the lightweight anchor holding everything together. He rarely raises his voice, opting instead for a polite, fragile tremble that conveys deep emotion under a veneer of restraint. The vocal melodies on Neon Golden are immaculate, yet Acher sings them like faint glimmers, with the timbre of a mild-mannered underdog — not a word to compensate, not a sentence to describe this desperate state. Maybe it has something to do with a native German speaker singing in English, but throughout the album Acher makes the simplest sentiments feel overwhelmingly resonant, be they questions (“What are we going to do about this,” “Have you ever been all messed up”) or commands (“Pick up the phone and answer me at last,” “Leave me hypnotized, love”). It’s a perfect fit for such pointedly micro compositions, compact pop tracks for Kompakt obsessives that have aged far more gracefully than most of the dance-punk that was popping off in parallel.
Neon Golden is timeless, but it was also ahead of its time. The following year, Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard would team up with the electronic producer Dntel as the Postal Service, with an album that played like a poppier, more streamlined version of what the Notwist were doing here. With each passing year, indie rockers messing around with electronic pop started to feel like less of a novelty, and the phrase “laptop pop” started to seem redundant. By the time Acher and his bandmates finally returned with The Devil, You + Me in 2008, Stuart Berman’s Pitchfork review noted that “the indie/electronic divide that the Notwist so carefully toed has been obliterated in a flash of strobe lights, with acts like Cut Copy and Hot Chip pushing shy-guy indie-poptronica out of the bedroom and onto discotheque floors.” And that was before anyone had ever heard of Passion Pit.
If the Notwist preceded all that, they also stand apart from it. Neon Golden‘s insular and understated take on electronic rock feels more spiritually aligned with cult-beloved acts a few notches below the Phoenix pay grade, exemplified by the way its phenomenal closing ballad “Consequence” has been both sampled by Ryan Hemsworth and covered by Katie Dey. Ultimately, the album’s unique charms have not been repeated by anyone — not even the Notwist themselves, who’ve taken pains to keep pushing forward rather than endlessly repeating their breakthrough. Looking back on that record’s aftermath, Acher told Pop Matters, “We had to learn that many journalists thought of Neon Golden as our best record, and that nothing good could follow. But now we had made the ‘record after Neon Golden‘ and that felt very good, actually.”
By the time he gave that quote, the Notwist were on to yet another new adventure with 2014’s Close To The Glass. The record sounded nothing like the band that launched in Weilheim all those decades ago and only a little like Neon Golden, and yet it was a kind of circle-closing moment in several capacities. A band once informed by Bleach and Mudhoney, who’d later lay the groundwork for Give Up, had signed to Sub Pop. The relationship did not last — last year’s Vertigo Days came out on Berlin’s Morr Music — but as is often the case where the Notwist are concerned, the fleeting synchronicity was beautiful.