NATION OF LANGUAGE
(Play It Again Sam)
Phil Oakey of The Human League used to describe his band and fellow artists immersed in electronica, Kraftwerk, Moroder, and all things futuristic as being ‘alienated synthesists.’ There was a certain outsiderdom to the people who made those records. If someone hasn’t made a playlist of ‘alienated synthesists’ for a popular streaming service, I feel that it is my duty to do so.
Nation of Language are obviously indebted to many of those artists (apparently singer Ian Richard Devaney was inspired to start the project after hearing OMD's ‘Electricity’ in his father’s car), that’s a given. Yet it is only here, on their startling third album, that I realise just how alienated these modern synthesists actually are. Devaney’s exploration of infatuation and its ability to warp reality run throughout the album and are apparent from the start: ‘Weak in Your Light’ is so very lonely, Aiden Noell’s delicate accompaniment to the singer’s submission (‘What can you share to keep my hands cuffed?’).
Despite its obvious poppiness, ‘Sole Obsession’ (and yes, there’s a clue in the song title), is fuelled by turmoil and a need to move on (‘finally I feel it fading, walk me home and walk away'), the tugging of should I stay or should I go. A similar hurt runs through the nimble ‘Surely I Can’t Wait’ (although there must be some humour in the line ‘Save my mom the monotone/It’s just another love song). There is a sense that, although Nation of Language are defined by their synthesized sounds, their musical palette is broadening, most evident on the swirl of guitars on the magnificently introspective ‘Swimming in the Shallow Sea’, which has the band gazing intently at their shoes.
Once, when asked for his thoughts on Kraftwerk, Bono responded by describing them as ‘a great soul band’. Although it’s easy to find fault or irritation in almost anything that the U2 frontman says, there is so much truth in that remark. He was right, despite all of those synthesizers, all of those robotic gestures, there was a huge heart to Kraftwerk’s music, there was a passion, and if you listened closely you could feel it too. And when I think of Nation of Language, when I refuse to get drawn into which supposedly cold and futuristic acts they have been most inspired by, I see a band that has made an album with a yearning, lonely, and troubled heart. If asked, I may even be inclined to describe them as a great soul band.