Lower Dens - Nootropics
- By Pam McIntyre -
- Apr 30, 2012
I never thought a Lower Dens album would have me worried the end was nigh. ‘Twin Hand Movement’, their debut, had its moments of low-slung darkness, more suited to sundown than the dreamy summer evening aesthetic of tour mates Beach House, although Jana Hunter's sultry vocals reached Victoria Legrand levels of somnambulance, and the song ‘Completely Golden’ may well have seen an increase in diagnoses of synaesthesia, being almost musically onomatopoeic, if that were possible. But such attempts at genre long division as ’weird-fi’ and ‘space-gaze’ to differentiate them suggested a more esoteric perception of Lower Dens, and 'Nootropics' sees the band develop along these lines.
The title refers to a type of drugs that enhance cognitive ability, and is actually pronounced ‘no-eh-tro-pics’ – cue smug hipster overemphasis of that salient syllable in less enlightened company (see also Stevens, Suf-YAAN). Throughout the album there is sense of open space, of the stratospheric, and of a fixation with science - it’s an exploration of the band’s fascination with ‘transhumanism’, that is, using technology to transcend our natural capabilities. Lead single Brains, an intensely building, drum-driven kinetic masterpiece, is one of the best five minutes of music you’ll hear all year. At 3.35 you might hear your spine tingling.
Nootropics has moments of great beauty, with Nova Anthem’s hypnotic, etherized melody and sweeping synths and strings creating a quite breathtaking sense of weightlessness, an out of body experience. A lot of it was written as the band toured the length and breadth of the USA, gazing out the back of the tour bus as it rolled through state after state, which explains the soaring expansiveness of central songs ‘Lamb’, ‘Propagation’ and ‘Candy’. But add to those wide-open sonic vistas a Cormac McCarthy-esque layer of post-supervolcanic ash and the landscape changes dramatically, still epic, but desolate, and with a gathering unease. This may be symptomatic of the loneliness one sometimes feels living in such close quarters with others while feeling so apparently existentially troubled.
Some parts of Nootropics aren’t that easy to listen to. ‘Lion in Winter Pt 1’ is, says Jana Hunter, ‘one of my favourite things we've ever done’, and apparently, somewhere within its squally disparate noises, there lies a ‘plot’. Good luck finding that. To me, it is either wilfully recondite or just unknowingly pretentious. ‘Lion in Winter Pt 2’, sounds like a Soviet production line kicking into action, and feels incongruous, out of step with previous tracks' beautiful cosmic sprawl.
The album closes with ‘In The End Is The Beginning’, perhaps the most telling of all the song titles, and the most metaphorical, encapsulating Jana Hunter’s ‘darkly hopeful’ philosophy of the future. It begins at the end of the world, when the screens have turned to fuzz and white noise, and the machines have taken over their masters. As if from a dark soundscape strewn with broken things, Hunter’s intermittent alto drone gives way to disjointed slices of jangling, dysfunctional guitar – a Sun Araw-like swamp of industrial psychedelia. After twelve minutes of increasing distortion it all falls away to nothing but a faintly whirring coda of computer noise, a soundtrack of synthetic entropy. ‘Don’t be afraid,’ Hunter reassures us on Brains, ‘everything will change, while you’re asleep.’ The question is whether we’ll want to wake up.
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