The 1980s: somehow, it’s a decade that never seems to leave the public consciousness, at least in Western culture. Thatcher, Reagan, AIDS, the miners’ strikes, Princess Diana, Wet Wet Wet, Back to the Future, aerobics leg warmers, E.T., Furbies – you get the idea.
It’s been over four decades since the 80s, but our generation is still oddly nostalgic for (and familiar with) a time period we never lived in, and consume more 80s kitsch than you could imagine (from the gargantuan cultural phenomenon that is Stranger Things, to the deliciously sleazy Channel 4 comedy White Gold). Nation of Language are a band that tap into this consistently popular kitsch, crafting a hypnotic sound owing to 80s British synth-pop. Their Manchester show is a whirling wave of chattering synths, crisp drum machine loops and propulsive bass pickings. Oh, and some ecstatic, bug-eyed, David Byrne-esque dance moves thrown in for good measure.
Whilst unavoidably derivative, Nation of Language perform their synth-pop musings with a great deal of fidelity for the bands that they’ve been inspired by. I’ve often thought that all the best electronic bands are those that are able to balance the futuristic sounds of digital technology with human idiosyncrasies.
Whilst it can be a deeply enriching – and often unnerving – experience to get lost in the sounds of a computerised world (late 70’s Kraftwerk springs to mind), it can often seem cold, sterile, and subsequently, hard to emotionally engage with. Bands like New Order avoid this issue by, for lack of better phrasing, being a bit shoddy. Their intricate experiments with drum machines, sequencers, and synthesisers may have paved the way for dance-rock, acid house, and Madchester, but it’s Bernard Sumner’s out-of-key vocals, Peter Hook’s tendency for aggressively breaking strings mid-performance (which Nation of Language bassist Alex MacKay joyously apes on single ‘Indignities’) and Gillian Gilbert’s clumsy keyboard solos that make them endearing, enduring, and grounded. They’re human, flawed, just like we are.
Nation of Language fortunately seem to share this belief, melding their punctual backing tracks with charmingly cheap-sounding keyboard tones – sometimes sounding more like a high-pitched bird than an instrument – and a wonderfully characterful performance from frontman Ian Richard Devaney. His veins bulge as his venue-filling voice soars and screams over the group’s mechanical whirring. We can’t really tell what he’s singing at any point in the set, but it doesn’t matter: we just know that he means it.
He, like New Order’s Bernard Sumner, is the human element that electronic bands often can’t quite grasp. Devaney dances with a sweat-soaked conviction, prancing around the stage like a caffeinated Fred Astaire, clutching the microphone until his fingers turn red. Here is a frontman, unabashedly idiosyncratic and chaotic, that makes a fun 80s throwback something much greater than just a novelty act.
Nation of Language’s live show isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea – that’s a given. Their songwriting style is intrinsically designed to be repetitive, the musical components of each song chugging away like a steam-powered locomotive (such as the tinny drum machine on ‘Wounds of Love’, or the sparkling strings on ‘September Again’). To some, this will be dance-inducing and hypnotic. To others, it will be deathly boring. Gorilla’s audience seemed to house both camps.
The band’s discography is also somewhat indistinct, with a lot of their chorus melodies being far too similar to other songs in their back catalogue and sometimes – as is the case with ‘On Division St’, which slyly magpies New Order’s ‘Bizarre Love Triangle’ – even other band’s discographies. To put it bluntly, their music can often feel forgettable.
Luckily, there’s enough quality in Nation of Language’s songwriting to stop their occasional lack of distinction and originality from being too big of an issue. Classic single ‘I’ve Thought About Chicago’ shows the group at their most nostalgic, sensitive and escapist, with Devaney’s lyrics at their most thematically concise. Weaving in and out of keyboardist Aidan Noelle’s spine-tingling synthesiser solos, the singer reminisces about the past, as well as wondering what the future may hold: a glittery ode to conflicted ambition. Their newer material also shares this vulnerable sensibility; ‘This Fractured Mind’ anxiously rambles about a life lived a little too fast.
Nation of Language are a band that satisfy both the body and the mind. Lose your limbs to rhythms handpicked from early 80s Soft Cell or Spandau Ballet (‘Friend Machine’), but do try to pay attention to Devaney’s minimal – but concise – lyricism (that is, if you can manage to make out any of the words). With a tight-knit three piece line-up synchronised to simply mechanical perfection, and a frontman determined to make every penny of your £15 worthwhile, Nation of Language’s live show is a lovely way to spend an evening for any fan of synth-pop. Or, even if you’re not, who knows? You just might be reminded of a life you never lived.
You can listen to Nation of Language’s music here.