Nation of Language first appeared in DC on Jan. 8, 2018, to open The Wombats at 9:30 Club. Frontman Ian Richard Devaney proudly announced to the sold-out show the he quit his job that very week to tour with The Wombats. It was a gamble that paid off.
The synthpop trio triumphantly returned to DC to perform at The Atlantis, 9:30 Club’s little sister venue, recently, and they came equipped with three full-length studio albums and a winning stack of singles — all released in the intervening years. Those records are amazing but seeing is believing when it comes to Nation of Language.
On Nov. 11, Ian whipped himself into a frenzy, dancing madly all around the stage while he used his body to emote the catchy and affecting lyrics of his band’s songs. He hardly ever stood still for the audience in the sold-out music hall of The Atlantis, bouncing between synthesist Aidan Noell (also his wife) on stage right and bassist Alex KacKay on stage left. Devaney’s performance was so memorable because he gave it his all; he left nothing in reserves. And he’s done just as much each time I’ve seen Nation of Language, dating back to that first time in 2018.
Nation of Language toured behind their new album, Strange Disciple. Their date at The Atlantis capped a stretch of that tour, and the band pick it back up for a few dates starting on Nov. 30. Strange Disciple is an exceptional album, and Nation of Language rightly dedicated about a third of their show to the new record. They timed the tour to follow the release of this record, their third studio full-length album, via PIAS in September.
Opening the show with the album’s “Spare Me the Decision,” Nation of Language wasted no time ensnaring the audience. Soon, the band performed “Sole Obsession,” nominally the new album’s title track due to to the verse: “You and your sensational soul/ Slowly reframing our roles:/ Empty idol, strange disciple.” As with every song, “Sole Obsession” was an opportunity for Devaney to show off some dance movies, and he bobbed and weaved along the front of the stage in time to the music.
About two thirds through the show, the crowd pleasing “Too Much, Enough.” The audience quickly embraced the song about information overload, singing along to the chorus with a hearty “Too much!” at the appropriate intervals.
Watch the official music video for “Too Much, Enough” by Nation of Language on YouTube:
During “Too Much, Enough” and other numbers, Devaney played guitar while dancing around the microphone stand. To his right, Aidan lost herself in the music, brimming with greater confidence than she possessed in Nation of Language’s early days. She was having a good time playing the synthesizer, and audience caught and amplified her carefree cheeriness back at her.
Nation of Language closed the set with their excellent tune “The Wall & I,” a number that recalled New Order in its presentation. “The Wall & I” hails from Nation of Language’s stunning debut record, Introduction, Presence, which the band self-released in 2020. Ian played the synthesizers side-by-side with Aidan during “The Wall & I,” and a few other times throughout the show, and their warmth and chemistry enhanced the show.
Well, I referenced New Order there in talking about a Nation of Language song, and you cannot talk about Nation of Language without acknowledging that the Brooklyn-based trio wear their ’80s new wave influences on their sleeve. But Devaney has acknowledged in interviews that the band’s biggest influence is the extraordinary Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. The Brit innovators were responsible for elevating synthpop not just to melodic new heights but also to commercial success in their native England (after which they broke through here in the USA too).
In their encore, Nation of Language performed three songs, including perhaps their “most OMD” number — Strange Disciple’s “Weak in Your Light.” Devaney sang the song with deep romantic learning, and the soothing chord progressions recalled the finest of OMD songs like “Messages.”
As much as Nation of Language love the first wave progenitors of the synthesizer sound (as do I), they are no pastiche or novelty act — they have their own personality, musical presence, and way of doing things. Indeed, with Strange Disciple, their best album yet, the band truly began to explore the possibilities of the new wave genre, getting a little looser and having a lot more fun with the music. These wonderful musicians no doubt will soon headline 9:30 Club, the very place they made their first DC appearance opening The Wombats.
Many thanks to my colleague Matthew Ruppert for watching the show and sharing some insights with me. Matt took some truly fantastic photos of the band from around the venue, and I wanted to share those photos with you. Thank you, Matt!
Here are some photos of Nation of Language at The Atlantis in DC on Nov. 11, 2023. All photos by Matt Rupert, courtesy of IMP.