You can’t swing a patch cable without hitting a band that’s trying to sound like pre-1985 New Order, Depeche Mode, and/or The Cure. This has been true for years. However, it’s far more difficult to find a band that pulls it off well. (Also true for years.) The biggest sin is usually favoring sonic purity over songwriting — a “period piece” obsession of style over substance. Think about it: Why we still care about those three bands is less because of the type of synth, drum machine, or amp they used than it is about what they did with those instruments and their vocals.
Since 2016 Brooklyn-based Nation of Language are among the acts that actually do this right and well. You can listen to their songs and at times hear the influence of Phil Oakey, Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook, Vince Clarke, and Alan Wilder in a synth part, electric bass melody, guitar splash, or drum-machine pattern, but the band are not letting it get in the way of writing damn good songs. The three-piece — Ian Devaney on vocals, Aidan Devaney on synths, and Michael Sue-Poi on bass — craft compositions that can compel introspection and profound longing but also foster charismatic joy. Verses and choruses, sung in Ian’s often-Matt Berninger-esque timbre, tell stories that draw us into their world and keep us there long enough to feel something.
“[The songs] are not empty nostalgia exercises.”
Introduction, Presence, Nation of Language’s recently released debut LP, embodies this spirit. It is a near-perfect body of work. The early-80s synth-pop, new wave, and post-punk framework are a means of achieving the goal of excellent songwriting, and are not empty nostalgia exercises. Certainly, fans of that era of music will take to the sonics of this album immediately. But that would be an ephemeral experience sans any solid core. Fear not, though, as Introduction, Presence has a core as robust as granite.
Take “Friend Machine,” the best song on the record. The sequenced-bass and tight drum machine could, in other hands, come off as a band trying to mimic The Human League’s “The Things That Dreams Are Made Of.” But with Nation of Language at the helm, they weave an engagingly fresh new song that references the feel of a cut like “Dreams” while pairing it with a timeless relatability. Ian’s note that “It’s just an itch/There in the bottom of the mind/Come out with it/You make me wonder all the time” is a thought journey familiar among the sentient.
Album opener “Tournament” is laden with wistfulness, a driving rhythm, and distant synths pushing through a Springsteen vibe, as Ian sings about facing a host of hurdles between him and love. Refrains of “I’m not rushing away” and “‘cause I’ve been waiting for a long long time” become an ode to resilience.
The mid-tempo “Automobile” blends live drums and electric bass with an array of blips and beeps and a splatter of synths that fly in and out of the arrangement, often leaving the just rhythmic bones to give off a raw, carnal feel. Ian’s vocals are a soaring, commanding presence. “Rush & Fever,” in which Ian’s vox are among their most Berninger, is a buoyant, upbeat musical foray drenched in melancholic lyrics: “Save us, save us saints from above/why would I say what I would want/‘cause I remember when you couldn’t find the time.” Few artists nowadays make unease feel so triumphant.
A selection of the album’s cuts have been making the rounds the past two years — notably, “On Division Street” and “Indignities.” Those excellent songs gave us merely a hint of the masterpiece awaiting us. As with modern bands like Black Marble and Soviet, Nation of Language have succeeded where so many others fail: they never forget that their chosen sonic palette is a means to a creative and beautiful end and not the end itself.