It’s been a strange road for the Notwist. The German quartet has been around since the late ’80s and as the decades have gone by they’ve rapidly changed sounds. Listen to “Agenda” from their self-titled debut then turn to their 2009 scoring work Sturm. The change from grungy punk to ambient electronic is startling. Outside of Markus Acher’s vocal work there are few points that can tie the Notwist’s early work to the albums they released in the 2000s. If there was a turning point it was 2002’s Neon Golden, which is often considered their finest work. Close to the Glass attempts to recreate the same sonic excellence of Neon Golden with a slightly more electronic infused sound. Unfortunately some of the ambient noodling from Sturm has carried over in befuddling ways, making Close to the Glass album with a few bright points overwhelmed by a lack of cohesion.
The best parts of Close to the Glass work with folk and indie, much like Neon Golden. The first half of the album is undoubtedly the stronger side; a few tracks here are among the Notwist’s best. “Casino” and “From One Wrong Place to the Next” are both devastatingly sad pieces. “Casino” deals with both emotional and financial bankruptcy over the album’s most somber guitar work. When Acher coos “there’s something wrong with me”, he sounds like a wounded child. “From One Wrong Place to the Next” is the album’s simplest track, but rivals “Casino” in sadness. Few words are spoken on “Wrong Place” other than “hand over mouth” and “this is the dream I bought”, but combined with the slurring and sliding background the repeated phrases become haunting.
Lead single “Kong” is the album’s best song, a bittersweet indie-jam that seems to be a companion piece to Yo La Tengo’s “Ohm”. The fuzzy guitars and Acher’s tender vocals seem to be perfect for a road trip anthem, but the lyrics dip towards the hidden darkness of bands like the Shins. “Waters coming in / House will fall,” Acher sings, though he does balance it out with a heartwarming “’Cause I Believe in This”.
Sadly the second half of the album is significantly weaker than the first six songs. “Seven Hour Drive” is an uninspired Pavement-style rocker that obsesses over guitar distortion and fuzz that never adds, only distracts. “Run Run Run” is one of the darkest tracks here and excellent ideas and themes drift in and out but the song never fleshes out. Album closer “They Follow Me” ends things with a whimper, it’s a pretty enough song but the puzzle pieces that the Notwist attempt to push together don’t form anything interesting. “Lineri” is the album’s worst song, a nearly nine-minute slog devoid of Acher’s vocals or Andi Haberl’s driving drums. Instead, it works around a sleepy ambient groove that seems content to drift aimlessly.
There are two tracks here that show progress in the Notwist’s electronic experiments. The title track has a wobbling beat that makes the unsettling production even more unnerving. “Into Another Tune” is as close as the Notwist get to a synthesis of folk and electronic. A looped string section bolsters Acher’s airy lines before Haberl drives the song to its end. Unfortunately with the addition of the Notwist’s awkward electronic sections Close to the Glass becomes frustratingly uneven.