The strange and unexplainable new phenomenon called Nootropics teaches patience with even greater rigor than Chromatics’ placid fever dream of rock ‘n’ roll, Kill For Love, and in its lightly troubled, almost vacant wake, I can only approach it with an analogy, an incomplete one: Lower Dens are to whatever trend of American guitar rock they supposedly or actually align with (New Weird America? Psychedelic Rock? Twenty-First Century Baltimore Tread?—I made up that last one) what Slowdive were to the shoegaze scene of early 90s England. On Nootropics, we find them in love with the quiet, abstract underneath and moving away from core tenets fast. For all its free-floating instrumental passages, the album might be slightly more married to conventional song structure than Slowdive’s experimental third and final album Pygmalion, but one imagines that by album number three, Lower Dens will be even deeper into that silence where Slowdive produced arguably their most essential album.
A few rhythms and guitar colors from Lower Dens’ excellent 2010 debut Twin-Hand Movement persist here, but this is the follow-up that’s barely prepared for and not at all anticipated. Where before Lower Dens were a band in the additive sense, energies combining, here the players’ relationship is subtractive, each instrument reducing the others’ clutter until total lucidity prevails. Singer Jana Hunter has named Kraftwerk as a major inspiration, and that’s apparent in the utter severity and resulting beauty of the music: the not quite accidental beauty of Public Image Ltd., perhaps, minus the intentional ugliness. Call the patina vivid gray, the color bands like For Against and The Cure long ago made something more than bleak.
Despite its starkness, the album has a sort of unannounced audacity, and is in many ways the big rock record that lead single “Brains” suggested it might be. Maybe it’s just my imagination, or the tilt of my head when I listen, but I hear “Lamb” as a diagonal stereo arrangement, its peaks of slow violence cresting backwards toward the upper left corner of my headphones, Hunter’s soaring vocals sounding sucked away by the headwind. She’s singing with greater strength here, and she’s also the album’s rhythmic drive, as suggested in her description of Nootropics‘ origins in endless highway miles on the band’s tour van, a situation anathema to conventional songwriting but perfect for the laptop and musical loops that Hunter found refuge in. Nootropics is a story of loops, then, and even the album’s less metronomic rhythms have an unflagging precision. One might mishear the amorphous, circular beat of album opener “Alphabet Song,” and thus make it infinite: The measure could begin anywhere.
Nootropics is, also, a story of codas, deserved, undeserved, and misplaced. The deserved coda is found in the two-part “Lion in Winter,” whose first half, a nebulous instrumental swirl, is completed in the song-oriented second half, an almost playful assemblage of sounds, clanging synths taking on a toy-like realness and physicality (think µ-Ziq’s Lunatic Harness or OMD’s Dazzle Ships). The undeserved coda is “Stem,” which leads out of the album’s best song, “Brains,” the huge slab of art all great American rock bands are obliged or obligated to create, chord changes mere ripples in a monstrous fabric. The energy of “Brains” is carried by the sort of locomotive rhythm that can never abate, so, like the second half of Can’s “Oh Yeah,” “Stem” makes an attempt to deflect the energy, but unlike “Oh Yeah,” no attempt to transform it, and the song ends quickly. “Long Stem” might have been more appropriate. The misplaced coda is “Moving,” the album’s digital-only bonus track, which would have made a fine, elegiac opposite shore after the proper album closer, long, long voyage “In the End is the Beginning.” Such are the sacrifices of the CD version.
For what it’s worth, the CD’s booklet features the sort of computer art, Future Sound of London by way of William Gibson, that once seemed like the proper design inheritance of the CD era. Bent pill shapes float in a techno ether, and this new, somewhat more artful presentation of ugly digital environments, both quaint and disturbing, foregrounds the meaning of the album’s title. These pills must be the brain-enhancing drugs called nootropics, and, when taken, they initiate a new kind of drug album, one lacking the euphoric highs of Primal Scream’s Screamadelica, the terrifying/hilarious visions of Butthole Surfers’ Locust Abortion Technician, or anything like an identifiable “experience.” If nootropics are meant only to improve cognitive function, you might not even know what they’re doing to you, and that vacancy would be mournful, right?