“Fire Without a Flame” begins with an emblem of NONONO’s entire debut, We Are Only What We Feel: a fuzzy guitar plays a hook, then a fuzzy synth doubles it, one mechanically perfect phrasing crowding out another. I don’t fetishize the human body as instrument and electronic music has an infinite palette, but Pro Tools plug-ins have emotive limit points. The returns of music snapped-to-grid are not diminishing so much as they tend toward identical signification: the erasure of possibility and the subservience of human pleasure to binary code. Composing along a timecode has historical precedent, obviously. For Gary Numan, digital precision is scary, for Devo it’s funny, for Kraftwerk it’s fact, and for Daft Punk it’s drag. For NONONO it’s method, but as method, digital precision opposes their explicit affirmations of human life. The lead single, “Pumpin Blood”, uses synthesized whistles to notarize the choral testimony: “It’s your heart / It’s alive / It’s pumpin blood / And the whole wide world is whistling.” Needless to say, the music is hard to believe as worldly.
Such is the danger of the Stockholm-hailing trio’s lineup: two-thirds mercenary production outfit, one-third efficiently ductile vocalist. Astma and Rocwell are veterans of Scandinavian dance-pop, but remain subject to the album problem that besieges dance-pop the world over. The standard tactic of lassoing five or eight producers to one singer-songwriter gives LPs by Icona Pop, Katy Perry, Mø, et al. momentum and atmosphere beyond atmospherics. Although This is…, Teenage Dream, and No Mythologies to Follow are grab-bags for sure, they have internal differentiation that allows a listener to reference songs. Sole Kyary Pamu Pamu producer Yasutaka Nakata composes dance albums-qua-albums only by taking disposability seriously. The journeyman ready-mades of We Are Only What We Feel betray a basic incomprehension and simultaneous exploitation of disposable music. Ten plays in, I still can’t remember which of Astma and Rocwell’s unassailable yet monotonous guitar-and-keyboard arrangements goes with which song. Only on the Lana Del Rey-citation “Johnny” and R&B-citations “Echo” and “Down Under” do they not leave the duty of distinction to Stina Wäppling.
Therein we hear NONONO’s closest analog: Grand-era Matt and Kim. Both bands’ sounds move an audience, emotionally and physically, but the vocalists identify the bands in a hypertrophied soundscape. Wäppling sings less zanily than Matt; still she supersedes the instrumentalists with unflashy melismas and unexpected enunciations. The Top-of-the-Pops-sloppy metaphors might be an ESL thing (“My heart, singing from the bottom of its core”?), but prosodic interest is more sonic than linguistic, so I give them full credit for that pleasure. Wäppling’s voice doesn’t sell the inanities she sings, such as “we are who we are”, but it gives your brain a shunt past verbal comprehension. She is the equal and opposite human force of Astma and Rocwell; nonce-lyrics provide the field’s center.
The album title’s bold phenomenological claim explains NONONO’s method. The music-is-math consonance and scales invite responses of interest to those in a nightclub or in a cognitive musicology lab. At the same time, the grain of Wäppling’s voice encourages the feeling of connection with another human via a shared human body. This leaves us listeners in the peculiar, post-millennial position of being encouraged to feel human, full stop. As we discover that animals have more complex language systems than we have historically given them credit for, maybe it makes sense that signifiers like words and music have lost, for some, the ability to define the human, leaving the voice to affirm anthropic life. On the opening track, “Jungle”, Wäppling banishes a former lover to “the jungle where [they] came from” because she doesn’t “want to hear [their] sound no more”. If the sound of a person is the site of a human identity, with what tools can we forge personal or even sub-species identity formations? One might favor difference-systems like language and music, but meaningful, distinguishable identities don’t concern NONONO. Just look at the band’s name: they want to be as few things as possible.