Written by Jon Hegglund
The first time I listened to The Devil, You & Me, I put it on the iTunes and walked away from the computer to do some chores around the house. At one point, after I thought the album had played in its entirety, a muted, pretty acoustic guitar came floating out over the computer speakers. I thought, initially, that it was the opening to Nick Drake’s lovelorn folk ballad, “Northern Sky.” Before my confusion could be cleared up—wait, “Ni” should come before “No,” right?—Markus Acher’s quiet, melancholy voice dropped in and I realized that, yes, this was still The Notwist, with “Gone Gone Gone,” their brief and beautiful coda to the album.
What does it say that I momentarily confused a band that in 2002 would have been synonymous with glitchy electro-pop (before Tamborello & Gibbard delivered it to the malls and MySpace) with the singer-songwriter who inspired thousands of pensive coffeehouse folk strummers? Maybe it reveals more about The Notwist than about my own lazy listening. For all of its fuzzy beeps and digital crackles, The Notwist’s 2002 landmark Neon Golden was really a headphone album full of sadness and silence, but one with wonderful pop instincts nonetheless. Listening to
Neon Golden, in other words, was a lot more like listening to Elliott Smith than Christian Fennesz.
To find the band veering away from electronica toward a more acoustic sound, then, feels entirely appropriate, especially since a glitch-filled reprise of Neon Golden would seem just a bit dated in this post-Postal Service world. The emotional center of the band is without a doubt Markus Acher’s voice, whose slight German accent and flat tones create the impression of someone struggling to name and narrate feelings in a language not quite his own. Acher seems to sing very close to the mic, with almost no reverb, creating the sense of someone whose words are caught somewhere between thought and voice. Why is everything so locked up? Acher asks in “Gloomy Planets,” as if he suddenly found himself walking the streets after hours in an alienating American cityscape, beset by some confused sadness.
This is not to say that the group has packed up their electronic gear completely—just that the signature samples and electronic crackles are more seamlessly woven into straight-ahead alternative rock instrumentation. The opening track “Good Lies” provides the perfect template: beginning with a split-second of sampled strings before a muted electric guitar riff, the song feels almost conventional until the guitars fall away and the chorus floats over a single acoustic guitar, with Acher, aching: Let’s just imitate the real / Until we find a better one / Remember the good lies win. The song slowly builds itself back up until it almost rocks out in a swirl of guitars and drum samples.
Oddly enough, the weaker tracks on The Devil, You & Me are those that sound like they might have been leftovers from the Neon Golden sessions. “On Planet Off” plays out its programmed beats and whistling synth lines at a plodding rhythm, creating a somber mood but lacking the resonant immediacy of other tracks. “Hands on Us” is also a perfectly competent piece of dark electro-pop that drags on a minute too long. In contrast to the many others that feel more like fully realized songs than mere mood pieces, these tracks sound like the work of skilled artists working on a paint-by-numbers canvas.
Although I’ve been listening to and enjoying The Devil, You & Me for a few months now, it’s a difficult album to appreciate in the summertime. I’m sure I’ll love it even more once the winds and rain of autumn blow in and I can walk the hilly streets of my town with “Gloomy Planets” or “Boneless” on my headphones, the songs giving a small measure of warmth as I lean into the wind. When Acher’s plaintive voice and the band’s spare, lush sound take up the space between my chilled ears, then I’ll be able to say with confidence that The Devil, You & Me is one the best records of 2008.
Domino [CD, 2008]
1. Good Lies
2. Where In This World
3. Gloomy Planets
5. The Devil, You + Me
8. On Planet Off
10. Hands On Us
11. Gone Gone Gone