‘Strange Disciple’ and the Juxtaposition of Sound and Meaning

The opening track “Weak In Your Light” begins with a haunting invitation as Nation of Language’s lead singer Ian Devaney invites us to “come on in and sit beside me, where the waters collide.” The track hints at the kind of sounds we’ll experience throughout, starting slow and building towards a declaration of “I’m in love” that’s gentle and yearning, drawing us closer and closer until we’re immersed in the dream that is Strange Disciple.

Nation of Language. Credit: Shervin Lainez

The Brooklyn-based trio that comprise Nation of Language – Ian Devaney, Aidan Noell, and Alex MacKay – are kicking off the North America leg of their tour next week in Pittsburgh, following the release of their third full album. Strange Disciple as a whole is incredibly cohesive, embracing a natural ebb and flow that goes from soft rhythms to bouncy, upbeat songs without losing its sense of identity. It’s hard not to think of the album as a being of its own, a composite of the three artists that breathed life into it. While the sound sets the tone, the lyrics highlight the individual personalities of each track. The visuals created through “Swimming in the Shallow Sea” are enigmatic – the line “stranded in the shallow sea up above” echoes, lazing in and out like the tide. “Stranded” tells us it wasn’t intentional, but there’s no hurry to get back to shore. “Searching for some safer harbor / but you find none (so you float) / out of reach” because it’s “easier than facing what you’ve done.” The landscape offers a tranquil backdrop that keeps the mood elevated despite the heavy meaning behind the lyrics.

The music video for the lead single “Sole Obsession” materializes another such place — a tv playing only static, bare walls, desires and dreams laid bare and lost in the liminal space. You get the impression that all there is to do is wait for something or someone to come along and pull them from an inescapable fate of chasing an “empty idol / strange disciple.” Starting with a buoyant sound and soft vocals that resound through empty halls, the delivery intensifies towards the end. A desperate plea for some sort of respite, “walk me home and walk away” repeats, fading out into a conclusion that gives the illusion of escaping the destructive, obsessive cycle.

Strange Disciple is full of danceable, feel-good beats, but “Too Much, Enough” is on a level of its own. It’s my personal favorite, with an addictive chorus that makes it impossible to write about and listen to simultaneously. While most can be indulged with a tapping foot or inconspicuous head bob, “Too Much, Enough” calls for a dance break. The energetic beat distracts from the true nature of the song, much like the visuals and delivery for “Swimming in the Shallow Sea.” The music video is riddled with dark humor to confront the unending flow of information and countless tragedies that we’re bombarded with day after day. With technology placing the world at our fingertips, it’s hard not to get overwhelmed. By interacting with such subjects in a lighthearted, comical way, Nation of Language provides an outlet for anyone who shares a similar sentiment.

Restless routine, endless obsession — these themes are present in the very structure of Strange Disciple. Nearly every track ends with the repetition of a key phrase, with the final moments of the album being the most important instance. “I will never, I will never learn” repeats over and over as the music slowly draws to a stop that feels more like a short reprieve than a conclusion. The song references illumination and light, which eases us right back to our starting point, “Weak In Your Light,” coupled with a revelation that’s ominous but not unexpected: the journey is cyclical, a perpetual loop of falling in and out of routines and habits, of time itself. It evokes a strange feeling that’s neither positive nor negative – it simply is. Accepting this limit is the only way to cope with it, which gives new meaning to the last words of the introduction: “weak in your light / and I can’t seem to wash it off / and that’s alright.”