Record of the Week: Nation of Language’s ‘Strange Disciple’

Brooklyn-based trio Nation of Language has referred to their new full-length record as one for the emotional “wayfarer.” Singer Ian Devaney, who writes the songs, elaborated on the theme that pervades their third LP Strange Disciple and connects its ten robust, synth-forward tunes:

“I think in general, the album revolves a lot around obsession and the various unrecognizable shapes we twist ourselves into when we are overcome with an infatuation, whether that’s a romantic infatuation or say — like on our song ‘Too Much, Enough’ — when you’re obsessed with the TV news and the 24-hour information cycle and how all these things can be so addicting and can really make you find yourself doing things, behaving in ways that you don’t fully recognize. [It’s about] the rollercoaster of bouncing back and forth between those emotions.”

Continuing to draw upon their Kraut rock heroes Kraftwerk and the New Wave bands who followed like New Order, The Human League and OMB, Nation of Language explores experimental sounds with synthesizers dominating the guitars. Devaney said he loves how early synth bands showcase a sort of “beginner’s mind” with the boops and beeps, since he himself is a novice at the now nearly limitless synthesizer instruments and tools. “I’m not particularly good at any instrument at all,” he said, “especially not one covered with knobs and switches.”

Devaney’s partner Aidan Noell was a quick study on the keyboards when she joined the group almost out of necessity despite her lack of classical training as well. A few years ago, Devaney had three early musical collaborators up and move to California in quick succession, leaving him bummed and befuddled about how to move forward. “Well, that basically dries up most of the musician pool that I know,” he recalls feeling then about the future of the project, the vehicle for his songs. And then Noell offered to learn the synth parts. “Now she’s up there playing two different things on two different stands at the same time. It’s deeply impressive to me,” Devaney says proudly.

An early single from Strange Disciple, signaling the balance of bright and brooding indie pop that marks the whole record, was “Sole Obsession,” which would sound right at home on a John Hughes motion picture soundtrack from 40 years past. The album’s title is plucked from the song’s verses:

You promise not to run away
I promise not to overplay my card
Feign survival
I must stop limiting myself
You and your sensational soul
Slowly reframing our roles
Empty idol, strange disciple

“Sole Obsession”

The drum machine beats and the tones are so precise on Nation of Language recordings, I asked Devaney how exacting he is in-studio. Would he consider himself “nitpicky” in getting every sound on every song just right?

“I live with my demos for a long time before going into the studio, and you can often get attached to things. So the ultimate goal that I’ve been working on is asking [myself], ‘To get close to what the demo was, is that actually better or is it just what I’m more familiar with?’ and kind of trying to step back from things and really chase the most interesting sonic choice over the familiar sonic choice. Because you can find yourself building a cage for yourself if you get too attached to things from the early stages.”

Producer Nick Millhiser, who has played in beloved NYC bands Holy Ghost! and LCD Soundsystem, reminded the band “the perfect is the enemy of the good” and encouraged Devaney, Noell and bass guitarist Alex McKay to leave well enough alone after a couple takes and make minimal tweaks. Devaney said that Millhiser worked with Nation of Language to find “what the essence of the song is and not get bogged down in so many details like, ‘Oh, is this guitar a hair too loud?'” They recorded into an analog board, which gave the sessions a real sense of presence and acceptance of what was laid down in a given period. Because of this technique, Devaney explained, “you can’t jump between songs as you please, the way you might be able to if everything was on a computer, and so you really feel like you are committing to the song as it is on that set of days when you’re working on it.”

Nation of Language counts other acclaimed music-makers from The Big Apple as friends and collaborators, having once toured with The Strokes drummer Fabrizo Moretti who subbed in on bass. Remembering that run of shows well before the band was tapped this year for huge festival sets including Pitchfork in Chicago and Primavera Sound in Spain and Portugal, Devaney said, “I believe Nashville was a basement show. Chicago was a basement show. And I was like, [to Moretti], ‘I think this is a little different for you than your normal show.'”

When we spoke over Zoom last month, Devaney was at home in Brooklyn with keyboards, cords and computers behind him. “I feel like I can’t escape our live set up — I put it in my living room when I get home because we have to find the songs on the new album that we haven’t played live yet. We want to have as many of them ready as possible and vary the sets each night, and so I just immediately got home from touring and went back into program mode.”

I told Devaney that on first listen, I thought his band was European, like so many of his New Wave heroes, but now the New York essence is front and center. Does he identify Nation of Language as a “New York band” and feel like living in the city is core to their sound?

“I’ve lived here for nine or ten years now, and I grew up just across the river in New Jersey. So I was always coming here for shows and stuff. Growing up, you had The Strokes, Interpol, LCD Soundsystem, Holy Ghost!, all these bands that really made you want to feel like you were a part of some larger lineage and continuum. I don’t know if I could classify myself as being a part of this lineage, but it would be super cool if anyone else felt that way.”

Nation of Languages tours in support of Strange Disciple this fall, with a Nashville show at Basement East on November 7.