It’s no secret that 1980s nostalgia has been prevalent in indie rock for years now. From Future Islands and Interpol to The 1975 and TOPS, countless bands from the last two decades have found success filtering their music through distinctly ’80s lenses. Still to this day, you can hardly swing a dead cat without hitting an indie band with one or more of these elements: interstellar synths, bass-driven songs, rich production and melodramatic vocals. To join these ranks is both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, there’s a huge demand for music that sounds like it came from the era of big hair and goths, but on the other hand, it’s hard to stand out in such a saturated market—and even harder to make lasting, impactful songs that transcend its revivalist label.
New York City band Nation of Language approach this weighty task with more grace and far better songwriting chops than the vast majority of bands who attempt retro pastiches or something close to them. For starters, lead singer and songwriter Ian Devaney (formerly of Static Jacks) has a low-pitched, aching voice that just screams classic new wave, but more crucially, he has an ear for awe-inspiring melodies and synth lines that go above and beyond mere cinematic uplift. Nearly every one of his songs prompts a mental highlight reel of one’s own life, but without the stylish, candy-coated nostalgia that’s fetishized nowadays—it’s the profound kind that allows you to view yourself at your lowest and highest moments and see the beauty in having a finite amount of time to live.
Since 2016, Nation of Language have been releasing some of the finest synth-pop singles in years. They became a staple band in Brooklyn at a time when it wasn’t necessarily cool to embrace new wave sounds with such deliberate reverence. Groups that typically took off ranged from dreamy (DIIV, Beach Fossils) to twee (Frankie Cosmos) to punky (Parquet Courts), but few dared to occupy the same musical planet as New Order, The Human League and the like. With early singles like “I Thought About Chicago” and “What Does the Normal Man Feel?,” Nation of Language weren’t just finding their feet like most bands do with their first releases—they were already dropping fully-assured, thrillingly euphoric songs. They also caught the attention of Strokes drummer Fab Moretti, who played on one of their singles (“Indignities”), stepped in on bass with them live and later formed a side project with Devaney called machinegum.
If an up-and-coming Brooklyn synth-pop artist told you he’s constantly striving to write something as good as LCD Soundsystem’s “All My Friends” (one of the city’s most beloved indie anthems of all time), you’d laugh with justified skepticism. But, surprisingly, Devaney’s music dispels that doubt fairly quickly. After a series of singles released over a five-year period, Devaney has now delivered the band’s first full-length, Introduction, Presence—a debut effort that reminds us you don’t need to go to an arena to experience pop music of vast power and talent.
It’s exciting to hear a band who’s interested in creating their own chapter in synth-pop’s legacy rather than just a footnote from yet another outfit whose sole discography could be described as Bernard Sumner or Neil Tennant cosplay. The pulsing new wave of New Order, OMD, The The and Tears for Fears undeniably lurk beneath the surface of these songs, but Devaney is careful to let his songs breathe—never nearing the overly lush or occasionally tacky qualities of some new wave groups. While many of their contemporaries are hellbent on 1980s homages, Nation of Language’s songwriting recalls 2000s bands like Arcade Fire and The National just as much as those golden era groups. You can hear Matt Berninger-like tone and pacing on “Tournament,” James Murphy’s warmth and exhilaration on “Rush & Fever,” the zest and pomp of Cut Copy’s Dan Whitford on “Indignities” and Arcade Fire-sized elation on “The Wall & I.” But Devaney’s influences never overwhelm his songs—they blend and fade in and out of focus as his own personality and energy shines through.
The last thing you want in a synth-pop album is a lull, and Devaney never subjects us to that. There are subtle post-punk passages (“The Motorist”), mid-tempo dance-punk moments (“Friend Machine”) and spacious pop sequences (“Automobile”), but you’re never far from a life-affirming chorus or punchy rhythm. Right from the jump, lead track “Tournament” is an instant dancefloor-filler. “I’ve been waiting for a long, long time,” Devaney sings on its chorus, as if to proclaim the arrival of his long-awaited full-length. The head of steam built by the first five tracks is exceptional: The animated sway of “Tournament” transitions into the intoxicating bubbliness of “Rush & Fever,” followed by the melancholic “September Again” and “On Division St” and rounded out by the potent rhythms of “Indignities.” Introduction, Presence features a few older singles (“Indignities” and “On Division St”), which are welcome inclusions, but notably absent is possibly their best song—the anthemic “I’ve Thought About Chicago”—though new cuts like “September Again” and “Rush & Fever” near its effervescent brilliance.
Introduction, Presence wouldn’t connect so deeply without its visceral, universal emotions. Feeling crushed by the passage of time, romantic mishaps, the monotony of watching TV alone, the failure to meet your own expectations or the seemingly meaningless nature of it all? This album has something for you. “Tournament” crystallizes the lofty, misty-eyed dreams and struggles of New York City. Teeth melt in a fit of romance on “Rush & Fever.” And with “On Division Street,” we hear echoes of “a song so sweet from back when I was born” and see an image of a hopeful figure waiting outside a loved one’s door. Although their synth work and melodies are memorable beyond belief, this album’s poignance, delivered with a good-natured determination, is what takes the wheel and makes it a synth-pop milestone.
Introduction, Presence already sounds like a cult classic. It would feel like an act of hostility to dislike this album or discount its deeply moving vigor. Nation of Language might not be a household name yet, but let’s hope this line from “Tournament” is prophetic: “By the second day, the mystery was gone / And ten thousand lights would shine on.”
Lizzie Manno is an associate music editor, Coldplay apologist, bread obsessive and lover of all things indie, punk and shoegaze at Paste. Follow her on Twitter @LizzieManno.