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'Strange Disciple' Finds Nation of Language Still Grooving at Their New Wave Best, but Maybe It's Time for a Change
The Brooklyn trio remain committed to their analog synth sound.
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I’d comfortably say that if an artist makes the same album repeatedly, my cutoff is generally two records. If it’s three in a row, forget it.
That is why I’m conflicted on Strange Disciple, the new album from analog synth pros Nation of Language. The Brooklyn-based trio has easily been one of my favorites in this early decade. So much so that I credit their debut record, Introduction, Presence, with being one of the reasons I started this newsletter three years ago. During those early pandemic times, Nation of Language was a source of light, as they blended classic synth pop and new wave sounds with a touch of the aughts for a genuinely fresh listening experience.
The following year, I couldn’t resist A Way Forward, which, in execution, found the band digging further into the genre’s history with krautrock flourishes. It was an equally solid record that successfully avoided the sophomore slump. Now that their third record, Strange Disciple, is here, I am asking if there’s such a thing as a junior slump.
I was pretty excited when “Sole Obsession” dropped as the album’s first single. Still anchored by partners Ian Devaney and Aiden Noell, it sounded like everything you want out of a Nation Language song. Add in some tight acoustic drums and a memorable driving groove from new bassist Alex Mackay, and hopes were through the roof. With four singles before the album arrived, I got to the point where I didn’t listen to them to save some surprise for the release date.
There’s plenty of other great music here, as “Surely I Can’t Wait” should have been a single. The back half is solid, which includes some new Nation of Language classics like “Spare Me the Decision,” which benefits from Devaney’s guitar textures, or the immense payoff in the building “Sightseer.”
All too often, though, I’ve found myself drifting off (not in a good way) in the five or so listens I’ve had this weekend. The press for Strange Disciple noted that their first album was meant to take place in a car, the second on a train, and this new one as a solo trek by foot around New York. They expertly hit this idea on songs like “Weak in Your Light,” but sometimes the slower pacing and sparse production make me lose interest. It’s no wonder when you read this from Devaney about the new album:
“Suddenly in 2021 to our surprise, the rooms were full of people, and roughly half of those showing up wanted to dance while the other half wanted to cry. It’s a bit of a tightrope act to satisfy both feelings at once, but the most beautiful thing in the world to us is that all parties made the perfect amount of space for one another to be able to do whichever felt right to them. To be able to keep the live environment palatable to both groups has become the goal moving forward".
I like Strange Desciple and love the band enough to keep giving it more listens. But with the immediacy of Introduction, Please in the past, and A Way Forward proving to have been more of the same, I’m hopeful that a fourth album would bring something new to the table after Strange Desciple. Even just switching up the atmosphere and textures would go a long way.
Strange Desciple is available now on PIAS.
I know plenty of you listen to Nation of Language, so I’m curious: what do you think of the new record? Are you in the “gimme more of the same” crowd, or are you ready for something fresh?