Nootropics, the second album from Baltimore art-rock group Lower Dens, is a gray album for gray days. The record’s goofy title sounds as if it could be a reference to some long-forgotten Nickelodeon cartoon (“Welcome to Nootropics, kids!”) or one of those Philip K. Dick books written when he thought he was possessed by the prophet Elijah, but it actually refers to a word for smart drugs that, according to Wikipedia, can “improve mental functions such as cognition, memory, intelligence, motivation, attention and concentration.” The earworm-y, throbbing lead single from the album is called “Brains,” and the album shows a keen interest in brainy topics ranging from robotics to the role of language. Despite the high-minded subject matter, listening to Nootropics will not make you smarter; instead, it will probably make you sad.
The band’s first album, Twin-Hand Movement, was one of those auspicious debuts that points toward ambition without ever really feeling that ambitious. Having released vaguely freak-folk material as a solo artist under her own name, the group’s lead singer and guitarist, Jana Hunter, provided a mystical, almost celestial touch to an at times too comfortable gray palette of texture-based, slow-crawl guitar rock. Sometimes it was so skeletal the bones started to break. The guitar interplay was immediately impressive for its complete control of tonality and atmosphere, and its ability to still wrangle new-ish sounding rumbles and squawks from a guitar-playing style that will be declared “done to death” until we all die. It was a respectable debut, but it wasn’t the type of album I ever circled back to or thought about much, unless I was looking for something to read to.
The new album kicks the band up from pleasant reading music to something else entirely. The shift in scope and ambition is evident from the clicks of percussion that open the album’s first track, “Alphabet Song”: The delicate precision of the drum pattern suggests that the band is done shambling along. It’s the sound of a band snapping into focus. This sense of purpose only grows on the second track, “Brains,” the closest thing this glacial album has to an anthem or a rallying cry. Over a militaristic beat and a murky synth, Hunter drops her voice low, chanting herself into a monotone frenzy. The lyrics are difficult to make out: She says “teeth” at one point, “brains” at another, “night” makes an appearance. It’s all a slow build to the song’s moment of haunting catharsis. “Don’t be afraid/Everything will change/While you’re asleep,” sings Hunter, somehow sounding both reassuring and completely terrifying.
The lead up to this album has seen many personnel changes and minor upheavals within the band. In a revealing interview last year with Baltimore’s City Paper Hunter spoke in detail about the lineup changes and the band’s tireless touring. At one point while discussing the departure of drummer Abe Sanders, Hunter says, “He had more of a free spirit, or something—like more of a bohemian [laughs]. You know? And we kind of like, you know, are robots.” Hunter was speaking more in terms of the band’s work ethic, but the comparison extends to the music, which often feels slightly inhuman or alien in an intriguing and fascinating way. By embracing their robotic side (and a set of more robotic influences) the band members have crafted a more idiosyncratic and ultimately more human record.
What makes the new album such a marked improvement? By embracing a bunch of ’70s art-rock textures (droning synths) and ’80s post-punk rhythms (the clarity of the drumming approaches the brisk, sublime work of New Order), the band has simply created a more varied and nuanced sonic identity. And, simply put, the songwriting is better. Some songs are even catchy at times in a sleepy way. “Propagation” rides a buzzing synth into a swaying chorus. “Lion In Winter Pt. 1” and “Lion In Winter Pt. 2” are the band’s big krautrock moments, where the drones build to slinky, toe-tapping conclusion. The lyrics may lack the urgent, hand-to-the-throat emotional intensity and romanticism of fellow Baltimore synth-dabblers Future Islands, but Hunter makes up for it by twisting her rich alto into all sorts of strange and compelling shapes. Hunter’s voice is still the band’s secret weapon. She can do the Thom Yorke whine, the Beach House coo, the early R.E.M. mumble, the Kraftwerk robo-warble and a few other tricks within that slightly limited vocal tic wheelhouse.
Hunter has claimed in interviews that the album deals with themes of transhumanism and that “Brains” in particular is about a fascination with artificial intelligence. For all its steely remove and chilly minimalism, the album never feels particularly apocalyptic or dystopian, suggesting that it’s ultimately about robotics mingling with humans, the mixing of the inorganic with the organic. Despite the lack of direct emotional content in the shrouded lyrics, the music has an ache to it, a yearning that suggests a desire to connect but an inability to make a connection. It’s the sonic equivalent of that unsettling scene in Steven Spielberg’s A.I. where Haley Joel Osment’s robot boy floats to the bottom of a pool, staring up at the other children with a dead-eyed expression on his face. Alone, submerged but grasping for human touch. It’s a tough mood to sustain for a full album, but Lower Dens pulls it off. Gold star for this robot band.