Bio : Nation of Language
Three years on from the release of their unexpectedly self-assured debut album Nation of Language have attracted a rapidly growing, international audience via their danceable and impassioned take on new wave and post-punk traditions. Their hopeful music—marked by soaring melodies, blinking synth lines, and frontman Ian Devaney’s towering voice—is a ray of light in an era of anxiety, cynicism, hatred, and snark. A fervent sound has continued to evolve across two subsequent albums, but the common denominator is an unmistakable quality of movement: the pulse from their keyboards is heady and propulsive, and their lyrics teem with the restlessness and romanticism intrinsic to life in concrete jungles. The trio’s bustling Brooklyn home has continued to serve as a backdrop to their creativity, the end product permeating with an urgency to embrace progress, exploration, and forward motion.
Those who have seen Nation of Language perform have witnessed Ian Devaney, Aidan Noell, and Alex MacKay bounce around the stage with seemingly endless energy as they dot the globe. These days, they’re packing venues with increasing frequency throughout the year, and becoming mainstays of massive summer music events such as Governors Ball, Austin City Limits, Desert Daze, Pitchfork Festival, Primavera Sound and Outside Lands. Following the critical acclaim of both their 2020 debut album Introduction, Presence and its 2021 follow-up A Way Forward, the band have made their late-night TV debut on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert last year, and now head into their next chapter.
Nation of Language’s forthcoming third album Strange Disciple fits neatly into this theory of motion. Devaney has come to view this first trio of LPs as a sort of triptych, with each album relating to differing modes of transportation. He imagines the first (Introduction, Presence) takes place in a car, with a blurry euphoria reminiscent of road trips and song titles like “Automobile” and “The Motorist.” The follow up (A Way Forward) occurs on (and as) a locomotive, influenced by the minimal chug of krautrock. So it’s only fitting that their latest full-length Strange Disciple is their wayfarer album, best experienced with one’s own two-feet on the ground and informed by walks through various cities while on tour or within their home base of New York City.
Also new to their creative process, live shows have begun to play an important role in the formation of this new set of songs, as the band was able to see the drastic range of audience reaction to their music firsthand from their first waves of on-again/off-again pandemic era touring. ““Suddenly in 2021 to our surprise the rooms were full of people,” Devaney says “and roughly half of those showing up wanted to dance while the other half wanted to cry. It’s a bit of a tightrope act to satisfy both feelings at once, but the most beautiful thing in the world to us is that all parties made the perfect amount of space for one another to be able do whichever felt right to them. To be able to keep the live environment palatable to both groups has become the goal moving forward". As they prepare to play for as many people as possible in the year ahead, their swift rise is still something they’re getting used to. As Devaney elaborates, “Other than on a hyper-local level, for a number of years we were such an unknown band that being unknown naturally became our default mental setting. This time around, I’m told repeatedly that there’s people waiting to both hear and see the new music... and yet I still can’t quite grasp the concept that either one is true. I see the dates on the calendar and at times it feels like it must be somebody else’s band”
Strange Disciple was recorded in the East Williamsburg studio of producer Nick Millhiser (live member of LCD Soundsystem and also one half of Holy Ghost!), with a commitment to keeping the process as rooted in analog gear as possible and printing the tracks to tape. Leaning into a world of limits and surprises—much like a live show—the process allowed the band to accept imperfections and resist the inclination to overthink their songcraft.
The sonic direction of Strange Disciple was guided by the album’s lead single “Sole Obsession,” as well as “Spare Me the Decision” and “Sightseer,” all loosely groove-driven songs that deviate from the straightforward drive of A Way Forward. “The bass parts have more of a groove and a bounce that signaled being on your feet and out on the street,” Devaney says. As their bass lines became more playful and ambulatory, they also relied more on the electric guitar, which had largely been a background element up until this point. Channeling their love of shoegaze, the unhurried, distorted “Swimming in the Shallow Sea” is their most guitar-centric track yet, “Surely I Can’t Wait” blossoms out of a crafty, circling guitar groove, and “Stumbling Still” sneaks in some wah-wah guitar and live drums amidst its kraut-punk clamor. But perhaps the most glaring strums on Strange Disciple come from the zany bass line of “Too Much Enough,” which seductively contorts with a fun-loving wink during the song’s unforgettable chorus.
“Too Much Enough” planted another important seed in the album process—the song is about watching the news on TV and the feeling of “taking in so much media that your brain goes into constant outrage mode,” as Devaney explains. This song, along with “Sole Obsession”—a track about an overzealous devotee from which the album gets its title—embody this record’s focus on unhealthy infatuations and obsessions, or as Devaney puts it, “revelatory anguish.” Strange Disciple’s album cover is a Christian Little painting of an absurd monk-like figure who’s in agony and ecstasy over their dedication to something. In an age of stan culture and political demagogues, not only is this theme a timely one, it also taps into something bigger—the idea that feeling something is better than nothing, even if the source is damaging. “Sometimes when I feel the most is when I feel hopelessly devoted to something or someone,” Devaney explains.
Most of Strange Disciple’s toxic infatuation manifests in relation to romance. Devaney drew inspiration from Leonard Cohen’s ability to imbue love songs with dark twists of the knife, resulting in these melodramatic—almost operatic—tales, which Devaney describes as a “quasi-fictional amalgam.” “Weak In Your Light” opens the album with their most forthright and pure admission of adoration to date, and as the LP progresses, the narrator fluctuates between obsession and shame. But by the album’s closer “I Will Never Learn,” that narrator is fully broken, having reached their wits’ end but still unable to free themselves, restarting the addictive cycle from the top.
Strange Disciple is a spiritual, searching record, as we follow a bumpy journey of self-exploration, stumbling on moments of clarity and wisdom and then getting tripped up again. Ultimately, it suggests that we shouldn't shy away from the brief pain necessary to make much-needed change in our lives, especially when it grants reprieve from longtime pain that we’ve grown comfortable with. However, it doesn’t paint these ideas in matter-of-fact terms, instead leaning on artful, transient vignettes of characters caught in the crosshairs of temptation, guilt, and reverie, as their obsessions both fuel and eat away at them.
Strange Disciple is an invitation to both celebrate and mourn, find yourself and lose yourself, reflect on one’s infatuations and perhaps even form new ones with these songs—as long as you’re feeling and as long as you’re on the move, whether that’s physically, emotionally, or mentally. After all, three albums deep, Nation of Language still have new horizons to explore, and several cars, trains, and planes to catch.