After a decade of stumbling from project to project, honing her craft, and building a loyal following, Jana Hunter seems to have finally found the band she was looking for. She has discussed her admiration for the most recent members of Lower Dens (guitarist William Adams, bassist Geoffrey Graham, drummer Nate Nelson, and keyboardist Carter Tanton) saying that “this particular ensemble is my favorite group I’ve ever played with.” Given that Hunter has played with Devandra Barnhart, Phosphorescent, Peter & the Wolf, Matty & Mossy, Deer Tick, Marissa Nadler, and many others, it’s a meaningful comment. And after listening to Nootropics, Lower Dens’ sophomore album, it is clear where that sentiment comes from. The band is harmoniously dialed in, operating in unison not just on one frequency but within a whole spectrum. Following Hunter’s lead, each member develops his part in his own style but all ultimately work toward a fundamental sound, which can best be described as hypnotic, driving, and otherworldly. It’s a beautiful synergy. Lower Dens’ first album, Twin Hand Movement, was a fantastic collection of songs that established the bands ability to plunge from carefully crafted rock melodies into psychedelic moments of dark beauty; somehow, Nootropics is able to dive even deeper.
For this album, the analog synth is more heavily employed. Twin Hand Movement was drenched in swirling guitar work and some might find the new record decidedly less raucous. Piercing guitar licks are still a part of the album, to be sure, but it is fair to say that Nootropics gives up some reckless abandon in favor of crafting a more focused mood. The synth work goes a long way toward creating that mood. Dark and searching, Hunter has mentioned that this album is meant to explore, amongst other things, the evolving relationship between humans and technology. “Brains” is about society’s fixation on artificial intelligence. “Alphabet Song” is about “denying our animal selves while adopting these social tools that encourage progress.” The heavily synthetic production is thus not only sonically but thematically fundamental to the album. It takes a few listens, but soon one isn’t immediately hearing this album vis-a-vis Twin Hand Movement. Nootropics starts to occupy its own space and from there it expands indefinitely.
“Alphabet Song” opens with a unique, cyclical drum beat. Nate Nelson, who is a new addition to the group, does not bury his individual style. Rather, he was likely brought into the band because of it. His rhythms are patient and unobtrusive and they seem indivisible from the song. After a few bars the drums are joined by a spaced out synth arpeggio, the lead guitar melody, and, finally, a gripping bass line. It’s a simple arrangement but it is effortlessly haunting, and it lulls the listener into the appropriate headspace. This act, forcing the listener to put him or herself in a mental state wherein the album will be appropriately absorbed, reminds me of a novel that teaches its reader how it should be read. Lower Dens are able to do this repeatedly throughout the album. Instrumental soundscapes, such as “Stem” and “Lion in Winter, Pt.1”, nearly anesthetize the listener (which perhaps explains album title’s reference to mind altering drugs). The latter, in particular, sets the mind adrift. Perhaps that is where one is meant to be in order to grapple with the ominous questions raised by “Propogation” and “Nova Anthem.” Is there any logic to the way we live our lives? Is there reason to have hope? Something in Hunter’s voice seems to say yes.
The album has its standouts (“Brains”, “Propogation”, and “Nova Anthem”) but it also has no tracks that would be better left out. The first half of “Lamb” is lovely and steeped in shadow but it morphs into something far more epic as, 2 minutes in, the drums break down and Hunter’s voice soars. The next track, “Candy”, sounds more like Twin Hand material. Yet it is also distinctly of this album in that all of the details are constructed to create space as opposed to fill it. For instance, Adams’ minimalist guitar work is precise and eery. The notes are sparse not for a lack of creativity but rather out of a desire for refinement. Similarly, the 12-minute saga “In the End is the Beginning” is patient, expansive, and stunning. As a painting the song would become an image of a barren, freezing tundra that is lifeless save for one man huddled around a fire. Like all of this band’s work, it rewards those who take the time to listen carefully. Hunter recently confirmed that the band was listening to a fair amount of Krautrock during the recording (as well as Eno, but that goes without saying). One can hear how Kraftwerk’s detached, synth-laden style creeped into the band’s work but, thankfully, it was only a catalyst. The heart of Nootropics – the way that each sound and feeling waves its way into the next, the way the production is simultaneously expansive and intimate, the rough beauty of Hunter’s voice, the many questions relating to how “Brains” can be so fucking good – is entirely a Lower Dens creation.
Some may fault this album for being overly atmospheric. Those same people might argue that an album can only truly be great if a certain time or place isn’t needed to appreciate it. I wholeheartedly disagree. The most affecting albums aren’t the “right for any occasion” types but, rather, the ones that turn a cold walk home into a solitary and meaningful experience; or the ones that make a sunny day seem even more serene. Hunter has said that, with Nootropics, you have to be focused on listening, “which is a lot to ask of people. But thats the way I like it.” For those that have followed her work, being asked to dutifully analyze a new Lower Dens album is not as much an imposition as it is a glee-inducing gift. I can only hope that more artists adopt Hunter’s stubbornness and start giving us albums that are better when one is actually paying attention.
Stream ‘Nootropics’ in its entirety here.