opinion byBRENDAN FRANK
It’s one thing to be first. It’s something else entirely to build a successful archetype if you’re not first. Twelve years ago, the Notwist released Neon Golden, a precocious, foretelling entry into what was largely untested territory between synthesizers and indie rock. The chameleonic German band’s particularly lugubrious marriage of those genres wasn’t just a masterpiece, it left the door wide open for others to repeat. The genre almost immediately began taking on new levels of complexity and commercial viability, with the likes of Chromatics, Junior Boys and The Postal Service applying a similarly successful template. By the time the Notwist returned from hiatus to release The Devil, You + Me in 2008, they had fallen behind by standing still.
It was almost bound to happen; a six-year gap between albums is a sluggish pace by almost any standard. But from 2002 to 2008 the entire way the public consumed music had undergone seismic shifts. While the six-year timeline for Close To The Glass is nearly identical, the final product is not. The Notwist’s seventh effort is an album that’s comfortable with sounding discordant or even ugly if it means pushing the narrative forward, which it does to an extent. The minor-key melancholy has been stripped away, revealing a sound that’s spikier, more difficult to penetrate. Here, the Notwist seem more interested putting their music on display, indifferent to having it create any sort of connection.
It follows that Close to the Glass is one of the Notwist’s more proficient, challenging records. The flipside is that it is quite often not all that enjoyable to listen to, even once all of its threads have been untangled. Part of this appears deliberate, while some most certainly is not. “Signals” stumbles out of the gate, with singer Markus Acher delivering a clunker of an opening verse amidst musical Morse code: “It is oh so obvious/You can see the signs up in the trees/It is oh so hideous/It’s our way of walking up the streets.” The title track comes next, and it is a similarly jarring effort, focusing heavily on rhythm, seemingly at the expense of melody and lyrical incisiveness.
As a whole, Close to the Glass is questionably sequenced, particularly on its front end. The track ordering blunts the impact of the jauntier moments (which are better executed) that are peppered amongst long sections of tense serialism. The result is less an enjoyably eclectic mishmash than it is an album searching for a definitive stance on itself.
When his voice is needed most, Acher isn’t quite up to the task. Even the propulsive “Kong” finds him stretching his thin, milky vocals a little too far. He fares better on the more plaintive fares like “Casino” and “Seven Hour Drive”. Mostly though, Acher sits at odds with a musical style far removed from the one that had grown to accommodate his frail mumblings. Too many of his lyrics seem like placeholders that shouldn’t have made the final cut. They’re merely sufficient when they should have been something more. Perhaps it’s no coincidence then that the album’s real triumph is “Lineri”, a wordless stunner full of sweeping currents and buoyant rhythms. It’s the great equalizer, with understated dynamic shifts and a portentous melodicism that persists for a thoroughly engrossing 9 minutes.
The good outweighs the bad here, make no mistake. But unlike the best of the Notwist’s output, Close to the Glass isn’t emotionally nourishing, primarily because there’s no real sense that anything is at stake. In that sense, the album’s title is disappointingly appropriate. There’s no entry point, as if the entire thing was designed with the intent of keeping you at a distance. C+