It is November 2022, and Reykjavik is overrun with tourists and festivalgoers. Nation of Language, too, are in town for Iceland Airwaves. Over two decades, the Airwaves festival has developed into a hybrid situation—a major winter attraction in Iceland and a showcase for local talent, but also an event that can garner higher-tier indie names like Fleet Foxes or Flaming Lips as headliners. This year is a semi-tentative postpandemic toe back in the water, and amidst the smaller-than-usual lineup and pivot back toward a discovery-oriented format, the rising Nation of Language are one of the big international names anchoring the fest.

On the festival’s opening day, Nation of Language frontman/mastermind Ian Devaney and I are sitting across from each other in a courtyard, wondering exactly how in the fuck we ended up in Iceland together.

Every music journalist has heard the phrase “You should check out my friend’s band, I think you’d like them” a million times. Unless they are particularly bright-eyed optimists, most of them have met these words with dread, knowing that the night will typically end with the journalist making a dire attempt to feign positivity to their soon-to-be ex-friend with terrible taste. But when someone said this to me six years ago about a then-very-unknown Nation of Language, the result was far from the usual.

The first time I saw Nation of Language, they were playing to maybe 20 people in a small Manhattan club. I was blown away. By 2017, there had already been several cycles of ’80s revivalism. On paper, Nation of Language’s synth-pop could’ve been passe a few times over, but this didn’t sound like the typical retro fetish. Sure, it helped if you already liked new wave—they collided the best parts of that tradition, at times sounding like a darker Human League, a more visceral OMD, or New Order with bolder vocal melodies. Yet in that Manhattan basement, hearing them rip through their first singles, “What Does the Normal Man Feel?” and “I’ve Thought About Chicago,” time was collapsing. In the 21st century, there have been countless nameless bands that effectively scratched an itch just by faithfully re-creating this or that sound of the past. But every song I heard that night felt like a refraction, nostalgia not as indulgence but as a lens. A genre that was always characterized by its wistfulness and melancholy was now wielded by this trio as some layered deconstruction of our own modern drift.

Even in those earliest days, Nation of Language had an absurd arsenal of hooks at their disposal. They already had struck this impossible balance between pinpointing nostalgic pleasure centers and turning familiar forms over in a new light. After that show, I found Devaney milling around on the street trying to cool off. We talked briefly—him either a bit shy or a bit nervous—each of us wholly unaware of the journey Nation of Language would take.

For the next several years, I went to every Nation of Language show I could, seeing them play in just about every small venue across Brooklyn and Manhattan, where I was, again, among maybe 20 or 30 other people in attendance. But something started to simmer around 2019; there was one particular gig where the band performed to an unexpectedly packed room at Elsewhere’s Zone One, and Devaney and I stood around afterward slightly baffled.

Then the pandemic happened, and, contrary to any plausible outcome—and despite what did happen to most emerging acts—Nation of Language quietly blew up. When they finally could perform again, everything had changed.

So, against all odds, Reykjavik. After failing to find a quiet hotel lobby or cafe, Devaney and I are talking at a small table near a park, huddled over against the cold, our hands shoved in our pockets. In many ways, he hasn’t changed since that much more humid night when we first met. His face is still all sharp angles; his hair still curls in a sort of perfectly controlled chaos. On the other hand, he wears his glasses more often now, though—after someone made a Harry Potter quip on social media—never on stage. His jackets have gotten cooler, the sort of vintage-looking voluminous outerwear that only looks good on musicians, and that apparently only musicians know how to find. But most of all, he still speaks with a measured, reflective cadence. Everything has happened so suddenly and strangely that he too is often trying to pause and make sense of it.

As these things often go, Nation of Language’s breakthrough was sudden, but not without a long prologue. Devaney first formed the project out of the ashes of his old band, New Jersey punk group the Static Jacks. When that band collapsed, he found himself back in his hometown, disenchanted and listless. Digging through the new wave music his dad had played for him during his childhood, Devaney decided to start writing on synthesizers as a way of forcing a rebirth. He moved to New York with Aidan Noell, his future wife and bandmate (she plays synths). The twentysomethings struggled from odd job to odd job while Devaney amassed demos for what would eventually form Nation of Language’s early singles and albums. By the end of the ’10s, they had sweated through so many New York shows that there was just enough momentum—and a bit of cash from Devaney and Noell’s wedding, where they’d asked for recording funds in lieu of traditional gifts—to make an album.

The release of NOL’s debut Introduction, Presence should have, by most logic, been a disaster. The band originally scheduled it for April 2020, then pushed it back a month to Devaney’s 30th birthday, when fans, musicians, and everyone else in the world naively hoped that normal things like shows might return in a mere matter of weeks. In the early days of the pandemic, Devaney often felt like the album was a disaster, that all the years of hard work and slugging it out on the local scene would end with a whimper, without them getting a fair shot. But thanks to the internet—where fans found solace in music during isolation—and a few lucky playlist placements, the album wasn’t stillborn.

When Devaney started the project in 2014, the goal was modest: “I want to be in a band that’s known around Brooklyn.” By the time NOL returned to the stage in the fall of 2021, they were selling out New York venues they’d once only dreamed of playing, and a sophomore album, A Way Forward, followed quickly on its predecessor’s heels.

The one-two punch of Introduction, Presence and A Way Forward now evokes a specific era: the pandemic, a time of uncertainty for all of us, but especially for a band that thought they may not get the chance to continue releasing music. Lor all they knew, these songs were just disappearing into the ether. Yet during the span of those two albums, NOL turned from a local band to a group known all over the world. Even as Devaney is mostly the same person in Reykjavik, things are now entirely different. Nation of Language’s third album is almost done, and it’ll be the first time they are releasing something to ardent, expectant fans. The stakes aren’t just higher; they exist for the first time. It will be the beginning of a new chapter, and the moment when the band tries to expand on what they built during the years of the pandemic. The name of that new chapter will be Strange Disciple.

Nation of Language in the studio
Dear diary, today some people from CREEM came by and ruined our recording session.

On a bizarrely balmy afternoon in January, we are back in Brooklyn and the members of Nation of Language—Devaney, Noell, and bassist Alex MacKay—are crowded around a computer screen in the studio. Rather than sifting through a recording, though, this is one of those tangents that fill idle time while recording, as everyone watches ’90s skateboarding videos. Specifically “snakeboarding” videos. The distraction comes courtesy of producer Nick Millhiser, always of Holy Ghost! and lately of LCD Soundsystem, who produced half of A Way Forward's tracks before helming the entirety of Strange Disciple (out Sept. 15). Some 10 years everyone’s senior, his memories of the ’90s are more concrete than the rest of ours, and his focus soon turns back to the array of levels and isolated tracks on a separate monitor.

Today, the actual work at hand is completing “I Will Never Learn,” a key track on Strange Disciple, which Devaney long ago knew would be the album’s closer. (Always adept at placing fittingly climactic moments at a record’s conclusion, Devaney heard the same “end credits” vibe here that was in Introduction’s “The Wall & I” and A Way Forward’s “They’re Beckoning.”) He and Millhiser mull over whether they should try live drums, before abandoning that in favor of having MacKay record the song’s loping bassline. Devaney noodles on a guitar in the background, seemingly messing around but actually trying to learn the song properly since he hasn’t played it since first laying down the demo. Meanwhile, Millhiser is parsing the various bits of the song on his screen, picking one synth track and then another and determining what should be rerecorded or simply cleaned up.

Nation of Language’s studio process is more about editing and clarifying—think someone chiseling a sculpture into finer detail rather than bleeding all over a blank canvas in the throes of new inspiration. Devaney’s demos are complete, and almost every final NOL product bears remnants of the song’s original recording. Millhiser’s ongoing contribution is bringing a muscularity and shape; he is always needling Devaney for wanting more low end, noting the demos are the way they are because Devaney writes with headphones on. Later in the recording process, Millhiser will gift Devaney a pair of monitors to avoid this pitfall in the future.

In their demo form, Strange Disciple’s songs were unstable images—the band’s mellowest, bleariest material so far, with jittery elements that made them feel like they could slip out of form at any moment. Some of that remains, but the recording this time around was a series of revelations, as songs became bolder and clearer. “He has the ability to bring a punch to things,” Devaney says of Millhiser, whose knowledge of the studio and arcane synths has helped Devaney find sounds he couldn’t get in his bedroom. “I think of this record as being more groovefocused and more staccato, until the moment when it’s not.”

That studio-honed oomph is crucial to Strange Disciple, an album of movement. As Devaney puts it: “If the first album takes place in a car, and the second takes place in a train, the third is for walking city streets.” That partially comes from living in New York, but more so, Strange Disciple’s ethos is inextricable from NOL’s heavy touring. It is the sound of darting in and out of unfamiliar cities and walking away with vivid snapshots stolen in the limited time between transit, soundcheck, and performance. Some songs are meant to allude to, in his words, “drunken late-night stumbling,” others to “overcaffeinated mornings” when excitedly traversing a new town.

Life on the road seeped into Strange Disciple in functional, structural, even spiritual ways. After so many more gigs and developing an eye toward how a song might translate on stage, Devaney asserts that Strange Disciple is fueled by an “exploratory, excited energy.” Stylistically, it moves further away from the peak new wave-isms of Introduction to further refine the more primitive, proto-synth-pop aspects the band toyed with on A Wag Forward. It is the band coming into their own, the arrangements growing more complex and layered. While there are a handful of NOL’s most spacious, patient songs here—“Swimming in the Shallow Sea” briefly indulging Devaney’s love of shoegaze by riding on warped guitar that sounds like naturally calm, ebbing waves—Strange Disciple primarily finds the band at their most propulsive. If Introduction, Presence was almost designed as an imagined singles collection, and A Wag Forward dominated by sonic experimentation, then Strange Disciple might be the most cohesive and concise set of songs NOL have put together thus far.

Nation of Language in the studio
“And then Maury was like ‘You are NOT the father’ and I, like, lost it.”

The album opens with a contented sigh: “Weak in Your Light,” the first unabashed love song Devaney has written. From there you’ll find some of the band’s most immediate material, from the disco gallop of “Sole Obsession,” to the computer blip strut of “Surely I Can’t Wait,” to the urgent churn and sing-along chorus of “Stumbling Still,” an old song unearthed and reworked for the world of Strange Disciple. Occupying the same centerpiece slot as oldies “Indignities” and “The Grey Commute,” “Too Much, Enough” similarly fixates on societal ills, this time bugging out over 24-hour news cycles manipulating us into a paralyzed frenzy. Synths and off-kilter basslines zip and contort around the track, mirroring the media overload that plagues Devaney.

The thematic through line for all these songs is, in some form or another, obsession. “It’s about these things that capture your brain and make you a servant to them,” Devaney says. “That can make you act in ways that don’t make sense to you or anyone else around you.” In the early moments of the album, it’s a warm romantic love in “Weak in Your Light” presenting a more wholesome breed of attachment and fixation. Strange Disciple immediately pivots with “Sole Obsession,” a reckoning with past behavior that gives the album its title. That sets up an album that observes obsession, and the various ways we can recognize and interact with it, from various angles. “It’s the realization of these patterns and freeing yourself from them,” Devaney explains. “The ability to step back and say, ‘I’ve been crazy, and I need to stop being crazy.’”

Across the three Nation of Language albums, Devaney traces the experience of an aging adult in tumultuous times— the not-quite-young-anymore city dweller who isn’t sure what the hell is going on or where things are going. Obsession, to him, slots in with this state, whether in the atomization of digital culture or the material realities of our generation. “In a lot of ways, it’s like the regular goals of past generations—things like home ownership or starting a family—feel so out of reach, you find ways to distract yourself,” he muses. “You just delve deep into other things.”

There is not really an answer to that sort of systemic generational affliction. At least not one that can be solved with pop music alone. But in the gorgeous pairing of “A New Goodbye” and “I Will Never Learn,” Devaney’s crafted his most moving conclusion yet. The former is a magic trick, beginning with an off-kilter beat but weaving its way to a finale featuring Devaney and Noell’s vocals wrapping around each other in angelic layers. If Devaney envisioned “I Will Never Learn” as end credits, “A New Goodbye” is like the climactic prom scene before the screen goes black. Then, at the end, “I Will Never Learn” is one of those songs that can sound like sunset or sunrise, depending on what you need. Despite its name, the song portrays a person who has at least learned something, grown up a bit, knows they can’t fall back into old habits. But the thought cycles are as difficult to escape as ever. The best solution Strange Disciple can offer in its final moments, after sweat-drenched bangers from a fried, overstimulated brain, is an exhalation.

Nation of Language in the studio with dog
Producer Nick Millhiser brings in the real talent.

As Nation of Language were putting the finishing touches on Strange Disciple, I was driving around America on tour. I received final mixes as they came in and kept listening to the album coalesce while submitting (maybe overly strong) opinions on sequencing to Devaney. It dawned on me that I was hearing the album come to fruition in the same context in which it gestated. A jet-lagged but invigorated walk in the Los Angeles sun with the languid coo and burnt guitar lines of “Sightseer” echoing in my ears; the keening siren synths of “I Will Never Learn” weaving through the trees in Oregon; “Weak in Your Light” intoning over a highway lashed by ghostly tendrils of snow while various post-industrial remnants rose up on either side of us. Nation of Language’s songs have often zoomed in on small exchanges and moments in search of a larger equation, but this time I could hear it throughout the album—the travel, the experience, a long journey away from their origins, and the return home as the same person but fundamentally altered.

At least one part of the surprise of Nation of Language’s sudden pandemic ascension is that, still, nobody quite knows where this band fits. Insofar as there is any one cohesive music scene in Brooklyn these days (which there is, for the most part, not), NOL are off to the side of it. So too are they separate from any domineering trends in the broader indie sphere. A long time ago, Devaney told me that one difficulty was that the band was neither fully experimental nor pop; their songs adhere to old notions of pop structures but bear no resemblance to the contemporary mainstream, yet they are also chasing a sort of platonic ideal of synth music rather than pushing out further into electronic ethers. These days, Devaney’s less hung up on how they might be perceived, looking up to bands like the National and Wilco who just did their own thing in various ways over the years. “They live in neither world entirely,” he says approvingly. “They can move back and forth to whatever degree they want. They’re not beholden to a smash hit.”

Once people find their way to Nation of Language, the songs engender a deep and enduring love. On some level it isn’t alchemy: This stuff is both extremely catchy and extremely emotional. In press materials accompanying Introduction, Presence, Devaney called the band “a space to openly ache for something.” That, in essence, seems to be the engine behind their rise. In the disorienting days of the pandemic, people could drive alone, or dance alone, and imagine seeing this music live someday. But overall, it’s the threads Devaney’s chasing, the millennial ennui he’s unpacking. Even with the slight modulations between the first two albums and Strange Disciple, NOL’s music remains searching, out of time—a fitting soundtrack for a generation feeling listless as time seems to fold in on itself and fall apart around them.

“It’s always a combination of old, imagined, my experiences, and friends’ experiences,” Devaney says of his writing. “You see your friends’ experiences and wonder how you’d react. You put yourself in as many people’s shoes as possible.”

For Devaney, the blur of it all doesn’t change the goal—to follow his own obsessions as he always has, in search of the moment when they blossom from burden to artistic release. “There are places I’m curious to go, but I don’t know if that’s the next phase,” he says, referencing his long-planned album of more shoegaze-influenced material that keeps morphing when he actually gets to the writing. Ultimately, following their instincts has served Nation of Language well in a music landscape that has become more unpredictable. With Strange Disciple being the first album they’re releasing with any sort of narrative having formed around them, it doesn’t seem like the time to stop trusting their gut. If people connected with the first two albums, it’s easy to imagine Strange Disciple resonating just as strongly.

There have been occasions when I could trace the turning points of Nation of Language. On tour, I heard these songs in wildly different contexts while flitting across hundreds of miles a day, hearing NOL as a band out in the world rather than a few neighborhoods down in Brooklyn. Back in Iceland, I spoke to a man who flew from Italy just to see NOL at a festival he’d never heard of, and then I watched Irishmen fistpump to the denouement of “The Wall & I.” Earlier last year, I stood in the back of a show at Manhattan’s Webster Hall while a thousand people shoulder to shoulder sang along to different songs from the ones I expected them to be singing along to. On that night I realized this wasn’t ours anymore. Those of us who had banged the drum all through the tiny shows in the Brooklyn days have to make room for a bunch of other people who are finally hearing what we’d heard.

Devaney has his own turning point. His was a show in London late last year, their largest headlining set to date. There was something else in the air that night. Fans sat on each other’s shoulders hollering lyrics back to the band; the audience more than obliged when MacKay recorded a birthday video for his grandmother during the show. When they walked off the stage, the three of them fell into a group hug, laughing and gasping for air. And when they walked back out for the encore, Devaney felt the simplest dream of an artist come true, after all the years waiting, after all the speed bumps, after all the plot twists: “I felt like a band I would’ve gone to see,” he says. “It felt real.”


Thanks for reading CREEM. This article originally appeared in our Summer 2023 issue. If you prefer to read in print, grab a copy here and subscribe to never miss another one.

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