How cool are the synthpop trio Nation of Language? Well, they are the kind of act the trendy culture publications love to love. They don’t just soundtrack designer shows at New York Fashion Week; they perform on the runway. They are from Brooklyn because, of course, they are. Add to this the fact their frontman looks like a cross between young versions of Jude Law and Andy McCluskey from synthpop OGs Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, and it’s all enough to make one wonder if Nation of Language are, in fact, anything more than an a perfectly-conceived aesthetic construct. Are these people turned out of a secret factory behind the Music Hall of Williamsburg?
Of course not. In Nation of Language’s case, “these people” are the husband-and-wife duo of singer/songwriter/instrumentalist Ian Devaney and synth player Aidan Noell, along with bassist Alex MacKay. Their synthpop, however stylish, is also sincere and genuinely inspired by the likes of McCluskey and many others. Their two previous albums, Introduction, Presence (2020) and A Way Forward (2021), contain great singles like “The Wall & I” and “Across That Fine Line”. Still, the most impressive trait of their music is it absolutely could have come out on Mute Records in 1983. That fantastic 1980s synthpop band that somehow slipped through the cracks? That’s Nation of Language.
Strange Disciple, the trio’s third album, is no different. Working with their usual producer, Nick Millhiser of Holy Ghost!, Nation of Language have taken a decidedly “don’t try to fix what’s not broken” approach. Or, in other words, they have stuck determinedly to their aesthetic.
Whenever an established act takes such an approach, there are hopes of refinement and incremental progress, as well as fears of diminishing returns. Strange Disciple has its share of both. It finds Nation of Language settling in and sounding more comfortable in their own skin. At times they have seemed like they are showing off their vintage synth collection (or digital facsimile thereof), peppering songs with gratuitous gurgles, bleeps, sweeps, and general analog flatulence. Strange Disciple is more streamlined, subdued, and concise.
A great example of this is the hauntingly gorgeous opening track “Weak in Your Light”. It starts with only a slinky, ping-ponging synth pulse to accompany Devaney’s unabashed declaration of devotion. The expected Nation of Language approach would be for this to, at some point, evolve into an uptempo, all-out anthem. However, they wisely choose to keep things down low, adding just subtle percussion and some moody synth lines, keeping Devaney’s emotional message front and center.
“Weak in Your Light” is the first in a trio of excellent songs that get Strange Disciple off to a thoroughly satisfying start. “Soul Obsession” is a straight-up synth banger, pulsating, chattering, and majestic even as it endures lashes from a white noise whip. “Surely I Can’t Wait” takes a more new-wave approach with Devaney’s jittery guitar until it unfolds into a wonderful lesson in the Vince Clarke School of Synthpop Purity.
One wonders if such a jump in songwriting quality can continue and eagerly hopes it can. Alas, it can not. Though Nation of Language attempt to stretch their comfort zone a little and add some new-for-them wrinkles, the songs themselves, while never unpleasant to listen to, tend to underwhelm. “Swimming in the Shallow Sea” employs washes of shoegaze guitar but never really goes anywhere. The playful “Too Much Enough” is perhaps the group’s first genuine attempt to indulge in some levity. However, Devaney’s media-skewering never gets sharper than decrying “a talk show that can’t help but hurt”, while the spiraling synths seem to lose direction, almost petering out in the middle break.
Then there is the fact that, despite their progress and modest attempts to diversify, Nation of Language still sound more like other people than they do themselves. In some ways, they are a tribute band to synthpop at large. This makes homage-spotting (to call it influence-spotting would be too mild) irresistible. The late-album sequence of the tense, irritated “Stumbling Still” and the starkly mournful, twangy bass-anchored “I Will Never Learn” reference Joy Divison and New Order, respectively. Even in “Sole Obsession”, a listener can identify the trademark cathedral-like synth lines of OMD as well as a spoken-word bit in the style of the Human League‘s Phil Oakley.
As for Devaney’s singing, his reverb-drenched, British-accented emoting recalls the more dramatic approach of Alphaville’s Marian Gold or a toned-down Billy Mackenzie from the Associates. His somewhat stilted, staccato manner of phrasing remains consistent throughout, lending either a pleasing homogeneity or a slightly unnerving sameness, depending on one’s point of reference. His lyrics are, as ever, both hyperliterate and hyperromantic, but the kinetic music provides a nice counterbalance.
Strange Disciple finds Nation of Language’s devotion to their craft and the acts that inspired them admirably intact, even dogged. It is probably their most listenable album from start to finish. Still, it leaves the sense that, cool as they are, a bold new turn may be coming due.