Album Review: Nation of Language – Strange Disciple

[Play It Again Sam; 2023]

“I’m sick to death of people saying we’ve made 11 albums that sound exactly the same,” AC/DC guitarist Angus Young once told a reporter. “In fact, we’ve made 12.” Three albums deep, AC/DC would seem an unlikely comparison to Nation Of Language, even though each group has now made similar decisions at crucial stages. 

AC/DC certainly felt the weight of expectation in 1980. Back In Black was to be the band’s first album with new vocalist Brian Johnson, following the death of the hugely popular Bon Scott. The Australians had already ground out six of the exact same record, so the opportunity to switch gears with the more tempered Johnson certainly presented itself. The Young brothers gambled on staying the course, even while the twin heads of Van Halen ripoffs and the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal sprouted in the rearview. (It all worked out in the end.)

Nation Of Language face different circumstances just four years into their recording career. The Brooklyn-based outfit’s first album might bear a slavish devotion to New Order and their ilk, but where some heard cynicism others heard innocent devotion. A second album of similar sounding but arguably stronger material – A Way Forward – followed within 18 pandemic months, but its streaming numbers underperformed the debut. If there was a chance to change tracks and get ahead of the narrative that Nation Of Language knew only to repeat itself, now was the time.

Drum roll.

Actually, Strange Disciple opens without any drums. Regardless, Nation Of Language doubled down. Ian Devaney’s heavily reverbed vocals dominate each tune, which are typically rooted in bass, synths, and minimal percussion. The album is being released in September, which creates a reference to one of their most popular cuts, “Still September”. The debut, Introduction, Presence, sported a nod to “Bizarre Love Triangle” and this one closes on another. Yet Let There Be Rock it is not. Devaney, Alex MacKay, and Aidan Noell have lingered, but in doing so have managed to perfect the band’s sound.

One of the most noticeable things about Strange Disciple is how clean it is. For a record whose themes include walking around a city, it never has to wait impatiently for the light to change or sidestep pigeons feasting on a ketchup-stained McDonald’s bun. It ticks along crisply, measured, and unimpeded. Single-string guitar notes pop on “Surely I Can Wait”, while the hi-hat on “Sightseer” and elsewhere splashes with all the fuss of two pennies tapping together. Nary a hair out of place, Strange Disciple nevertheless delivers more energy than pretense because its lightness precludes it from sounding too tight or over-produced. 

The largely drumless opener “Weak In Your Light” rests entirely on a low, delayed synth pattern and finds Devaney doing his own head in: “What can you share to keep my hands cuffed? / Somethin’ so bright and blessed that I’m all but crushed / Just a reminder I’m in love.” Before he can comfortably wallow, the last line of that lyric coincides with a single, bowed note that does the lifting work of a full string section. Nation Of Language’s commitment to simplicity – given an assist by the array of dated equipment at their disposal – prevents Devaney’s emotional problems from creating drag. From the second verse of “Weak” onward, the percussion properly kicks in and what was initially sorta spooky is now free to segue into the Pet Shop Boys-ish “Sole Obsession”. 

Many musicians will tell you (Taylor Swift a notable exception) that given the opportunity to revise earlier work, they’d pass. Albums are snapshots like yearbook photos and to doctor them would rob them of their essence as documents. Yet Strange Disciple operates like a chance to right what wronged A Way Forward, subtle though the differences may be. The synth melodies avoid several of its forebear’s more baroque turns, the tempos are less mid, and the debut’s charming youth has been restored. Artists typically and quickly cobble sophomore efforts from fragments left off of the debut, but, in the context of Strange Disciple, A Way Forward now seems in a hurry to look mature. 

If there’s a flaw, it’s spelled out in the title of “Too Much, Enough”. With 10 single-grade pop songs, Strange Disciple’s 44-minute run time – almost exactly the same as A Way Forward – gets leggy: a patience-testing average song length of four-and-a-half minutes. (Coincidentally, that’s Back In Black territory.) 

Their debut was filled with promise and, on their third album, Nation Of Language have kept that promise. Only nine more to go.