Nation of Language made their first two albums in the confines of the pandemic, and their lean and understated synth-pop was hewn from varying degrees of convenience. Keyboardist Aidan Noell, who is married to vocalist Ian Devaney, learned to play MicroKORG and Moog Sub Phatty Analog synths to help realize their vision. At their wedding, Devaney and Noell skipped a traditional gift registry and instead fundraised for their 2020 debut Introduction, Presence. Strange Disciple, their first project freed from the confines of lockdown and in the tour van, is still another achievement in economy, a project that looks to the sound of new wave as a springboard, not a textbook, and lets small touches shine.
With LCD Soundsystem’s Nick Millhiser producing the album, the group incorporates new sounds into their typically minimalist compositions. More live drums and more live guitar mean these songs fill larger spaces. The raw material doesn’t hurt either: Noell’s increasingly intuitive synth lines provide a handy pathway toward a rousing indie-rock sound that harkens back to Devaney’s origins in 2010s punk outfit the Static Jacks. (He first landed on synth-pop after a pivotal encounter with Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark’s 1979 single “Electricity.”) Bassist Alex MacKay’s melodic dexterity also tightens the screws on a signature sound beyond their formative influences.
Still, there’s no listening to Nation of Language without hearing the 1980s: icy lighting, rigid hip movements, starched collars. And yet pure nostalgia doesn’t fuel the project. Nation of Language are as quick to evoke millennial forebears like the Postal Service or Bloc Party as icons like the Smiths and Human League, and Strange Disciple’s songs are mostly happening right now, awash in lust or confusion. The band communicates these messy emotions with small idiosyncrasies that go a long way toward evolving their sound: See the soft synth collapses at the end of “Stumbling Still” and “A New Goodbye,” or the clanging chimes of “Sightseer.”
Across the album, Devaney sings in a downcast timbre that recalls Majical Cloudz’s Devon Welsh squared at festivals instead of DIY venues. He sounds most gripping when he uses it to curl his way around unfussy statements, as in opener “Weak in Your Light.” When he glides into his upper register on the line “I’m in love,” he hits the same sweet spot as in the group’s career-best songs: moments when he soars on one hypnotic syllable, his voice becoming indistinguishable from the synths around it. The best songs on Strange Disciple transform into more than the sum of their parts. When the synths and live instrumentation and hooks all coalesce, as on standout “Spare Me the Decision,” it is clear that Millhiser is the group’s secret weapon. He accompanies them with cascading layers of analog synths that still highlight the staples of their identity: the influences, the chemistry, the songcraft. By now, Nation of Language are well-versed in the ways of “less is more.” On Strange Disciple, they’re also learning what it means to get bigger and better.
All products featured on Pitchfork are independently selected by our editors. However, when you buy something through our retail links, we may earn an affiliate commission.