I’ve loved Nation of Language for a long time. I was raised on the guitar sounds of the iconic bands of yesteryear – think The Cure, The Smiths, and The Clash – as well as the synthesiser-led soundscapes of Pet Shop Boys and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. These bands left me largely disinterested in anything contemporary, but Nation of Language were the exception. With aching, sparkly minimalism, the band provided a magical soundtrack to my snow days in secondary school.
It’s now 2023. Nation of Language have persevered through a global pandemic and have two critically-acclaimed LPs under their belt – always maintaining the same wide-eyed enthusiasm for electronica that made them so charming back in 2017. Their influences, whilst remaining in the world of the synthesiser, have only continued to stretch outwards, adventuring from London synth-pop to Berlin Kraut-rock. Their third and latest LP, A Strange Disciple, is now upon us. Instead of speculating on their ability, we are left to think about what direction the band will take this time, and how far they’ve ventured from their roots and childlike enthusiasm.
A Strange Disciple’s opening track ‘Weak In Your Light’ certainly bodes well. Opening the record with a nervous, tentative sequencer that seeps with the same naïve wonder of the aforementioned ‘I’ve Thought About Chicago’, ‘Weak In Your Light’ instantly answers the first of our questions. The group’s shameless love of electronica is still very much present. It is part 8-bit Megaman soundtrack, part Brian Eno experiment, and part intimate first dance at a wedding.
The song displays the band at their most compassionate, with a vocal reminiscent of David Byrne‘s soft, humble musings in his solo efforts. Frontman Ian Richard Devaney leads the song with career-defining warmth. ‘Weak In Your Light’ is a love song of both the daunting and the divine – a ditsy bubble of intimacy and nervousness, glowing in a nearby streetlight’s yellow hues.
The rest of A Strange Disciple continues with the precision that you’d expect from a group at this point in their career. ‘Sole Obsession’ glitters with the same throbbing Kraftwerk influence and Soft Cell melodiousness felt on previous LP A Way Forward, whilst ‘Surely I Can’t Wait’ oscillates with impatient energy and ‘Too Much Enough’ echoes with an earnest, pop-minded catchiness. Devaney, keyboardist Aidan Noelle, and bassist Alex McKay know their formula pretty well at this point, and A Strange Disciple ticks away with sleek professionalism. This is perhaps the record’s biggest strength – it manages to marry the adolescent, amateur enthusiasm of the group’s origins with their newfound, hard-earned maturity and attention to detail. At their heart, Nation of Language are still the band formed by a frustrated punk musician throwing away the guitar and looking instead to cheap synthesisers, no matter how spotless their latest production and arrangements can be.
However, A Strange Disciple doesn’t venture very far from previous outings. All the same influences are here, all the same soundscapes remain intact, yet the band never fully commit to left-field electronic techniques or ideas to successfully distinguish this new record from their previous two. ‘Swimming In The Shallow Sea’, perhaps the most titularly intriguing track, ticks over with a murky disposition, washed with watery guitar sounds, but never quite lunges for the exploration that the group could evoke. ‘Swimming In The Shallow Sea’ doesn’t dive towards any notable depth – it remains idly treading water in stagnant shallows.
A Strange Disciple is a conflicting record. Nation of Language continues their nostalgic, bitter-sweet synth-pop career, but without the direction, scope, or innovation which you would expect from a third LP. It’s rich, glittery, and melodic, but lacks any clearly defined sonic or lyrical identity. However, the record will live a second life when Nation of Language tour it. Only then will we properly see how well it defines itself against previous successes and how potently it affects the band’s passionate listeners.