The Devil, You + Me
By Dom Sinacola | 19 September 2008
This is Notwist’s long-awaited follow-up to Neon Golden (2002). It should be a lot of things, maybe an arch culmination of every Acher project since, a nexus of the sterile romance of Ms. John Soda, the romantic sterility of 13+God, and the blueprint IDM catharsis of said predecessor. Maybe a return to grunge, metal, hard shit; maybe, on the other hand, an evaluation of where the music that they helped popularize (see above) has come, a distillation of their values through their super-sincere progeny. It also begins with a subcutaneous two-chord riff that isn’t much of a riff, just a textured counterpart to the swerving featherstuff of Martin Gretshmann’s ubiquitous backup blips. Cloudy eunuch voices join Markus Acher’s somnambulance, splicing together a vocal harmony that amounts to, dare I say it, a circular cadence. “Good Lies”’ arrangements follow suit, pleasantries cavorting steadily, weird noises (not-so-weird) never usurping the mix, together building then breaking down until a haranguing buzz envelops the lot, signaling climax. What made anticipation for this record so exciting is now warmed over. This is pall only, like: not death for the band, the so-called last nail, just a thin veil of banality. And this is what we’ve waited six years for? Fuhhhhhck. This is the Notwist, so get used to it.
I think that’s the problem, too, a burden that the band must carry: we’re used to this equation, to this plaintive warmth, and in one record we’re expecting ourselves to balance combating desires, rooting like moles through the woodsy groundcover of pretty sound at snout to find, familiarly, what made Neon Golden so breathtaking and wonderful while holding out hope that in the act of discovery—part of what made the last record so breathtaking and wonderful—the same visceral surprise will surface. I’m talking the simplicity of “Off the Rails” where for the length of a bridge a few violins, unadorned and pristine, make the melody immutable when the rest of the track drops out. There’s a deep sense of relief in a played-out moment like that—it’s graceful and prescient, even if it’s a tad cliché. (Who doesn’t want to hear violins going all total lovely violin-y for a few moments?) And it’s a moment earned, even found, rather than explained, concerned only with itself. The Devil, You + Me is, instead, an album of radii that never quite connect, mired in expectations without anything really progressive and progress without anything new to say.
Which, ok: abstractions abound. Disappointment is difficult to quantify. I think that in the quietest moments of this record (the watery glockenspiel of “The Devil, You +Me” before production goes shiny; “Gone Gone Gone,” where Acher wades out of the dull swamp of the lower registers of his voice and pushes it, floating playfully over two acoustic guitars and two acoustic guitars only) the band most clearly channels the concise pop majesty of their 2002 breakout, making such moves seem second-nature, effortless. Unfortunately, a track like “Alphabet” jitters nervously between misplaced drum breaks and endline bloops, as if tired with the restraint of the group’s best compositions, replacing that notion with grating, clipped guitar squall and a hard-on for stereo tambourines. Even “Boneless,” smirking, just sits squat in the record’s last stretch, devoid of any dynamic melody and building stupidly in volume and meaningless instrumental glut because, sure, that sounds nice and bristling in headphones.
Their lyrics have never been especially enlightening, but now, concerned with orbits, rhythms, repetition, and the pattern of mundane modern life, the Notwist are begging for evaluation in the light of what’s come before. It’s painful the way this reduces them to some critical limbo, neither great nor disastrous, just resoundingly grey. Once they were at the head of the game, defining those to follow, and now they seem a few steps behind in the middle of the pack. Freeze them there and you have this, their sixth album, aimed in every direction but utterly motionless because of it.