Listening to the second album by Nation of Language makes you wonder whether any of us really talks anymore. Do we genuinely converse with each other and do we reliably take the time to check in with ourselves and what we’re really feeling or thinking? From whence do we derive the dominant majority of our beliefs – from the messages around us or from within? A Way Forward demands that we truly tune into our internal and external worlds. It’s an album that demands you listen, and listen well.
As a title, A Way Forward could easily come with a question mark. The ambiguity of being human thrums throughout the lyrics and through each synth beat. With time, and therefore life, moving in one direction only, there is always a way forward. This in itself is paradoxically as optimistic (where there’s life there’s hope) as it is utterly nihilistic (we know what comes to us all in time). Similarly, if you’re experiencing a particular high in life, there’s only one way forwards from that peak, and it’s downwards, but if you’ve hit what feels like rock bottom, you can channel D:Ream or Yazz and expect the existential curve to start to rise.
Album opener, ‘In Manhattan’ is a Joy Division-meets-OMD track with a frantic snyth ripple that feels like dense, big city traffic, filmed in stop-motion animation. ‘The Grey Commute’ takes the upbeat motorik rhythms of Kraftwerk‘s Autobahn or Trans Europe Express and turns that momentum into the hypnotising non-adventure of the journey to work. The idea of “Broken hands, begging at the altar of the grey commute,” suggests that we’ve bought into a false doctrine in capitalism. Soft-focus Ian Devaney vocals pervade this song and the album as a whole, further accentuating the sense of detachment we can feel from the world around us. ‘A Word And A Wave’ entertains the possibility that small and simple gestures can make such a difference, but along with the central duality of the album, it’s not clear whether the narrative voice is grateful for receiving any such social micro-engagements, or racked with loneliness – longing for even a morsel of human contact.
To contrast with the urban displacement on the album, ‘This Fractured Mind’ examines deadbeat, dead-end, back-of-beyond mentality and the fact that you can lose yourself anywhere, amounting to little but a “perpetual pseudo-intellectual/ Kicking round your town.” It also makes you want to dance like Devaney, or the 80s robot, on the song’s video. That ‘Trojan Horse’ quality that Devaney has spoken of on this album, where the inherent energy of the rhythms can house pessimistic lyrics (harking back over four decades to early electronic pop songs like ‘Enola Gay’) is equally present on the lovestruck ‘Across That Fine Line’. ‘Wounds of Love’ has a synth break that could feel like the salve for a broken heart, or could feel like an emotional mercy killing.
After listening to these ten tracks, you ought to want to live in a nation of language, one that opens up to itself and to others, and one that is willing to discuss anything from the sheer bliss to the utter hopelessness of being alive, as well as much of the perplexing emotions and man-made mundanity in between. Whether you live in an overwhelming metropolis, whether you live inside your own head, or even a mixture of both, you can find your way here.
A Way Forward is out now via PIAS.