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Tuesday, June 03, 2008

The Notwist: "The Devil, You + Me"

Evolution can be defined as "the gradual development of something, especially from a simple to a more complex form." When taking into account The Notwist's expansive career, it becomes pretty simple to understand how this word applies to the band and their constantly diversifying sound. And to many, myself included, the pinnacle of this evolutionary process happened in 2002 with the release of the modern classic, Neon Golden. A flawless, masterful work of art, the album stands among an elite few that I would consider to be truly perfect. This kind of admiration is undoubtedly deserved, but can also lead to lofty, out of reach expectations. However, The Notwist are not a band that disappoints. They are a band that evolves. So while The Devil, You + Me, may initially seem like a disappointment to some, the end result is something that stands on its own. It is an album that doesn't necessarily exceed expectations, but does an amazing job of defying them.

This time out, The Notwist have created an album with a much lusher soundscape. The Devil, You + Me, features the guitar much more prominently than any of their albums released in the last decade. Where on Neon Golden, the band was content to hide it behind layers of electronics or mask it with countless effects, they now seem to welcome the sound, and often bring it to the front of their songs. The result is phenomenal, giving the album a much more natural, organic feel. This change also suits the lyrical content and mood of the album, as it is much darker than their past work has been. The band acknowledges this in recent interviews, saying that the darkness of the songs stems directly out of their personal struggles.

On "Gloomy Planets," one of the album's best songs, Markus seems to be questioning the reason why things happen, while simultaneously acknowledging that he'll probably never know ("Why is everything so locked up?" he ponders). The acoustic guitar is thick here, but it's blended perfectly with the band's signature electronic sound. The darkness arises once again on the album's title track, which also happens to be its best. Here Markus sings,"We know we're not the smartest/ in this place we don't have to be/ lights are out but anyhow/ this is what they see/ it's the devil/ its you and me." The sheer minimalism of the song is shocking at first, with only an acoustic guitar and vocals, but the band eventually adds in some stunning bells and simple, appropriate drums. Still, it never evolves (there's that word again), as one might expect, into a bombastic electronic track. And it's all the better because of it.



But The Devil, You + Me is far from all doom and gloom. Fans of Neon Golden will instantly fall in love with "Alphabet," a song that literally sounds like it could've been ripped right off of that album and placed here. Markus' simple lyrics and the breakbeat-esque drums are back in full force, and it all sounds quite fantastic. Album opener, "Good Lies" also has an upbeat, positive feel to it. A guitar-driven pop song, it has its ups and downs but ultimately satisfies with bouncy instrumentation and sing-along lyrics ("I remember good lies when/ we carried them home with us/ to our bedside tables and our coffee sets"). The band seems to be making a conscious effort to not do all the same things over again and to mix it up as much as possible. I can't really fault them for that, as The Notwist is all about introducing us to different experiences.

But as amazing as the experience is, there are still a few hiccups along the way. The album's first single, "Where In This World," for example, is quite a bore to listen to. Its sparse string instrumentation is more distracting than anything else, and Markus' vocal melody is about as uninteresting as it ever gets. Still worse, is the fact that the song lacks direction, and doesn't really seem to go anywhere. In much the same way, "Gravity," just sounds like an amalgam of poorly executed ideas. Whether it's the somewhat cheesy lyrics ("I see the planets spinning faster/ or is my body too slow?/ I don't know, I don't know") or the fact that the song gives of a "bad Radiohead" vibe, it just doesn't really work as well as you'd like it to. Markus' soft, raspy vocals seem entirely out of place with the dense, upbeat instrumentation, and I've found myself skipping this one far earlier than I thought I would.

In the end, however, The Devil, You + Me, is an incredibly moving and inspiring album. For as technically impressive as Neon Golden was, it's hard to deny the emptiness of many of its lyrics. The Devil, You + Me, focuses more on slowing the songs down and fleshing out the lyrical content, and as a result, the likelihood of a listener actually being affected by songs like "Sleep" or "Gone Gone Gone" is through the roof! Is it better than its predecessor? Of course not. But during its better moments, the album excels where Neon Golden could not - by combining deep, emotionally-driven songwriting with unparalleled musical technicality. It may not be their crowning achievement, but The Notwist has created an album that is able to stand on its own and continue the band's unfailing evolution. That works for me.

Key Tracks:
1. "Gloomy Planets"
2. "The Devil, You + Me"
3. "Sleep"
4. "On Planet Off"
5. "Gone Gone Gone"

1 comment:

Tim said...

A very fair review. I've been listening to it for a while now and think it's on it's way to being on a par with Neon Golden.

I would take exception with the comments on the orchestration on Wheree In This world, which is astonishing. It's microtonal swells sound like French spectral composer Gerard Grisey. Softer microtonal textures also breeze through the middle of th title track and are gone all too soon.

The orchestration is used sparingingly and I just want to hear more, more, more of it! But just as on Neon Golden, ideas are used sparingly all over the place and the only way of hearing more is to play it again and again and again!

Anyone who enjoys the music of composers like Ligeti and Messiaen will love the microtonal orchestration. And really, who else could or would so seamlessly merge what is seen as some of the most 'difficult' contemporary orchestration with lovely electronic glitches and fragile pop songs?