I was once startled by the idea that a close friend of mine and I were running on the very potentiality of ideas. I pictured two brains orbiting one another, the bodies that housed them just forsaken completely. I realized being present and not making demands beholden to either the past or the future was contentment. Contentment doesn’t bear scrutiny, and it’s a kind of relief. To me, whatever their specific influences may have been, the end result of Lower Dens’ second album is happily inscrutable: “brains without names” spinning ethereal and unperturbed, turning emotions around in the hand like Mrs. Miller’s glass egg.
Of course, Mrs. Miller was stoned on opium. And I realize these seem the musings of a dopehead — but it’s not so. They’re the thoughts of a person both alienated and nurtured by intense reflection and daydreaming. In this regard, I think there is much appeal to both Lower Dens albums, Twin Hand Movement and new album Nootropics, a reaching sort of mindset with a happy helping of sensory charms. Jana Hunter has always had a knack for warmly melancholic hooks, and this talent continues to flourish here. Only now she is really pushing her vocal range, and while you can sense the wall (particularly on the torch-like “Nova Anthem”), she always gracefully glances past.
Giving her band’s sound a fresh and thrilling depth are the stirring backing vocals by bassist Geoffrey Graham, especially on singles (and — I hate to be obvious, but — hands-down standouts) “Propagation” and “Brains.” If it weren’t for the signature quality of Hunter’s voice, this would sound like a whole new band. The one exception might be the pointed gloom rock of “Candy,” save the comparatively stately, pared-down arrangements. This is a decidedly more infinite-sounding band, closer to escaping that 90s post-rock thing that still has legs but is perhaps a little dusty nonetheless.
Don’t get me wrong, they could’ve made something along the lines of Twin Hand Movement and still been golden. The solidness of that record should not be diminished. But this new suite is perhaps something more rewarding as a sweeping tome to clear-eyed stimulation than a nicely refined genre exercise. Should their next release be yet another redefining, one can easily bet it will be worth listening to.
In the meantime, as Nootropics is a relentless grower, this latest entry should continue to find and enrich the lives of many unsuspecting listeners. It is a delicate alchemy of tight metronomic grooves and carefully parsed instrumental interplay, to the point where nothing steals the show. And there’s a sweet sort of reassurance to the record (despite the fearful and claustrophobic nature of the awe-inspiring closer) that seems to be the main emotional takeaway. Should we find ourselves zonked by reality and life-living-us sensations, perhaps we can simply sing a note of gratitude and resume our hammering away rather than diving into that rabbit hole. Our brains and bodies can work together or apart, without and within vexation.