The three members of acclaimed Brooklyn synth pop band Nation of Language were quite literally searching for a way forward after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic cut short what would have been their first major tour. After four years of scraping funds together to record one-off singles, they’d finally been able to release debut LP Introduction, Presence in May 2020; when songwriter/vocalist Ian Devaney and keyboardist Aidan Noel got married, they’d requested guests give them money for studio time in lieu of wedding gifts. But without a tour to promote the album, releasing it seemed like a lost cause – until Introduction, Presence gained unexpected traction and critical acclaim, selling out of three vinyl pressings.
Devaney, Noel, and bassist Michael Sue-Poi did what any scrappy DIY act would do in a similar situation – they decided to record a quick follow-up with Abe Seiferth (who’d worked on their debut) and Nick Millhiser (of Holy Ghost!). “There was so much uncertainty in not being able to tour that for a while we felt a bit lost while everything was locked down. Starting to write and record seemed like the only way to take a next step and get out from under the cloud that was so heavy over us,” says Devaney. Released November 5, A Way Forward takes its title from minimalist album track “Former Self,” in which Devaney sings, “”Away from you/I cover it well/But I may crumble/I can’t stop myself/A careful word/Something to guide my soul/A way forward.”
“Sonically speaking it felt like a good title because we were diving into a more expanded pool of influences,” he adds. “It felt right both in terms of life during the pandemic, and as a band finding new ways to expand what kind of sonic space we could occupy. There were so many directions that could be taken, but this felt like the right next step.”
Back in 2014, Devaney and Sue-Poi were at another crossroads; their Westfield, New Jersey-based pop rock group The Static Jacks had just broken up despite releasing two LPs and touring internationally. “The Brooklyn DIY scene is really what brought me out of just being a New Jersey musician in my early 20s and expanded the people and bands and venues I would come to know and love,” Devaney remembers. “It taught me the hard work it takes to try and stand out as a band and the fun you can have while you do that work. Quasi-legal venues like Shea Stadium were so important to my development and the friends I would make through the years.”
Devaney recognizes that NYC “looms large” on A Way Forward. “I still love the romance of New York, even as I contend with disillusionment with it on songs like ‘In Manhattan.’ It can really grind you down sometimes but that can also be a great source of inspiration, and I love the idea that our records might have some sense of place here,” he says.
Nation of Language deftly leverages the power of synth and new wave tropes, treading the line between contemporary indie rock and post-punk of the ’70s and ’80s. Anthemic while remaining authentic, A Way Forward juggles nostalgia and innovation meticulously, crafting contemporary modes of interacting with the new-wave icons of yore like Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, Depeche Mode, Kraftwerk, and Cluster. They studied the Krautrock pioneers of the ’70s, bands whose electronic experimentations influenced new-wave bands of the following decade. “That helped us give the music some more room to breathe,” says Devaney.
One advantage of having that breathing room was the ability to revisit old ideas with a refreshed mindset. “There are elements of songs that go back a few years, and others that were written entirely during the pandemic. The act of curating from a large list of songs and making last minute changes is a really fun and challenging endeavor,” Devaney says. “I like to say that I’m writing every album at the same time in a way, so that as I write I’m never limited by what kind of record I’m supposed to be making.”
The band went into the studio with several songs in a more open-ended place so they could continue to elevate what they had already written. “A Word & A Wave” and “They’re Beckoning” both started as shorter demos, but “grew into so much more as we used the studio itself as an instrument, flipping switches and turning knobs” for each take, says Devaney. “The song you hear is essentially just one variation of the song, of which there were a few to choose from.”
With “This Fractured Mind,” the band was able to take small moments from a demo and build it out into something new in the studio. “I had written a lull into the song before the last chorus. Once in the studio, we filled it with more ambient sounds that we created from playing synths backwards through a tape machine, which gave the moment much more meaning and value to me,” says Devaney.
No matter how much experimentation goes into making an album, Devaney says he sees Nation of Language primarily as an indie rock project. “It’s a pretty broad umbrella, but I like the freedom it gives – it presents an exciting opportunity to draw from as many influences as I want,” he explains. “If I only thought of myself as a new-wave band I think I might feel more limited, whereas as an indie band I could make a shoegaze record, an acoustic record… the future feels wide open.”
This way of writing allows Devaney the freedom to explore, understanding that Nation of Language may not always have the same sound. “If I find I’m writing a song that’s all violins or something, I can finish it and set it aside as another direction to explore in the future, rather than stopping because I need to write more songs with synth arpeggios.”
This is perhaps where the band diverges from new-wave bands of days gone by. Traditional synth sounds may provide a spark, but eventually traverse a broader territory of sound – another way forward. “It’s really just chasing what I hear in my head – sometimes that may be referential in some way to a certain sound on a record I love, sometimes it might come from a place all it’s own,” Devaney says. “It’s also about leaving space to be surprised – part of what I love about not being some kind of synth master is the ways the machines can do unexpected things with the push of a button. Maybe you have some sound you think is cool, and suddenly it’s moving in a crazy rhythm and inspires a whole new song then and there.”
Balancing this point of entry while allowing oneself to be affected by the unexpected allows Nation of Language to write music that is both familiar and mercurial. Endeavoring into places unknown can snowball into new songs, new sounds, and new ways of expression, but as Devaney says, “In the end, the most important thing is to feel excited and moved by whatever is being made.”