The music world has changed a lot since Neon Golden, but, for better or worse, the Notwist remain largely the same.
In the half-dozen years between new studio albums from Germany's the Notwist, a lot has happened in the music world. The omnipresence of electronic tones -- dominant in the soundscape at the turn of the century -- was replaced by the return of "real" rock 'n' roll. As the Strokes and the Libertines ushered in new generations of guitar-centered bands, genres like electroclash and glitch-pop were virtually annihilated. 2002, however, was a transition period, and the fusing of electronica to mopey indie rock made a great deal of sense. In fact, coming less than six months after 9-11, the Notwist's Neon Golden served as a perfect soundtrack for the feelings of claustrophobia, sadness, and alienation that permeated the air during that time. Even though the lyrical themes of that immaculate LP dealt with personal issues and romantic failings, the album still felt like it portrayed the global anxiety of those times.
Here in the middle of 2008, the knife-to-the-gut fear of terrorism has been largely replaced by the nagging stomachaches of a looming recession and global warming. In the music scene, the punk-edged garage rock of the early 2000s has evolved through stages into post-punk and new wave revivalism, growing ever more even-keeled, polished, and melodically accessible. Into this environment comes the sixth studio album from the Notwist, The Devil, You + Me. One might think the band has been woodshedding it during the interim, honing new material to a state of perfection. Instead, its members have been engaged in a slew of other projects, including Tied + Tickled Trio, Ms John Soda, 13 + God, and Lali Puna. Amazingly, despite all the changes around them and all of these side efforts, the Notwist have picked up right where they left off in 2002.
Actually, to imply that the band sound exactly like they did on their last effort would be an inaccurate generalization. Lead track "Good Lies" introduces a dark and driving guitar line, imbuing the song with an Interpolian vibe. On the other end of the spectrum, "Gloomy Planets" and "Gone Gone Gone" rely on acoustic guitar for their backbones, adding a new sonic element to the group repertoire. The mood remains trademark Notwist, though: resignation finally winning out over longing. Most of The Devil, You + Me is minor-keyed, mid-tempo alt-pop wherein organic instrumentation interweaves with digital blips and bell tones. If not exactly stale, these sounds are certainly quite familiar. "On Planet Off" opens with an ominous, pulse-dub motif that would have felt right at home on Massive Attack's exceptional 1998 LP, Mezzanine.
That same year, the Notwist fully emerged as rocktronica pioneers with Shrink. That album wasn't amazing, but it did foreshadow Radiohead's early 20th century hybridizations of alt-rock and electronica. Now it's ten years on, and the Notwist's formula remains essentially the same. There's certainly something to be said for knowing what you do well and not straying into whatever's fashionable at the time. On the other hand, The Devil, You + Me feels well worn on first listen. It offers plenty of nice moments, but few surprises.
Frankly, the band's relucatance to change would be fine if the material were exceptional. Instead, it's merely quite good. When a great album like Neon Golden is followed by a lesser work, it's hard not to be disappointed. This is despite the fact that, had the same work come from a different artist, it would make for a totally satisfying listen. So, those of you unfamiliar with the Notwist might actually be more inclined to be excited by The Devil, You + Me. Eventually, though, you will be drawn into the wondrous world of Neon Golden, and you will see what the Notwist are capable of creating. They may never reach that height again, but they'll have to live with each subsequent effort being held up against their masterpiece, nonetheless.