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The Notwist - The Devil, You + Me

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Artist: The Notwist

Album: The Devil, You + Me

Label: Domino

Review date: Jun. 11, 2008

The Devil, You + Me, the Notwist’s follow-up to 2002’s Neon Golden, has been a long time coming. In the interim the group’s members have been busy with side projects including Lali Puna, Console, Ms. John Soda, 13 + God, and the Tied + Tickled Trio (clearly these fellows have a thing for plus signs), but its hard not to suspect that the delay has also had something to do with anxiety about following up an album as well-received as their last. On first listen, what’s most surprising about The Devil is its similarity to its predecessor; reprising the magic formula of Neon Golden, it relies on the melding of fairly straightforward rock/pop songwriting and dense electronics-laden production.

While every track here is built around a more-or-less apparent melodic core and carried by songwriter-guitarist-vocalist Markus Acher’s unmistakable voice, the arrangements are essential to the material’s success: programmer-keyboardist Martin Gretschmann has the rare ability to effectively use what might otherwise seem like gratuitous ornamentation. Samples, synths, and electronics are not simply overlaid but carefully arranged, collage-like, inscribing a carefully plotted arc through each track. The painstaking production occasionally threatens to become overbearing, as on “Where in this World” (probably the band’s most complex track to date), overwhelming the sense of intimacy and vulnerability that gives the Notwist’s best material such emotional pull. The strongest tracks here opt for a sparser feel; on the title track, while the electronically manipulated guitar and orchestral samples can hardly be ignored, they come in at just the right moments, without distracting from or obscuring the simple acoustic song underneath.

As on Neon Golden, there’s a slightly anachronistic feel to The Devil, You + Me. The Notwist still seem to carry traces of their 90s work along with them, particularly in their more rock-oriented moments. Usually this isn’t a problem––it can come off gracefully, as on Neon Golden’s “Pilot” or The Devil opener “Good Lies.” The latter, a slightly shoegaze-y track, recalls M83, aiming for a pained epic sweep, but without the same nostalgia. On the other hand, this sense of anachronism can also lead to problems: “On Planet Off,” The Devil’s resident clunker, sounds like Nine Inch Nails making a mid-90s appearance on MTV’s Unplugged, and bears the unfortunate chorus lyric “I would never beat you up.” There’s something very hermetic and un-modern about the Notwist; despite their obvious familiarity with a wide variety of cutting-edge music, they differ from a band like Radiohead in that they don’t feel any need to position themselves as avant-garde.

Although most of the tracks on The Devil feel like well-formed works in their own right, they run the danger of being too self-sufficient, as though each one had be drawn from a different one of the band’s many side projects. There is certainly masterful work here, like the album highlight “Gloomy Planets,” on which Acher’s melancholy acoustic balladry gracefully unfolds into a whole world of chilly bleakness and loneliness with the aid of electronics and ambient noises. While a few of the other tracks seem to belong to and extend that world (“Boneless,” “Gone Gone Gone”), others inhabit an entirely different space (“On Planet Off,” the leaden “Hands on Us”). While it’s a solid follow-up to Neon Golden, The Devil, You + Me falls short of its predecessor in that, taken as a whole, it doesn’t amount to more than the sum of its parts.

By Michael Cramer

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