There’s nothing controversial in the idea that a favored topic of art is how social systems capture people and slot them onto constrictive rails, prescribing their behavior and limiting their lives before they’ve already begun. Yet is it possible that this thematic line sometimes operates as an implicit apology for the derived, predetermined nature of the works that incorporate it? In the case of Close to the Glass, the answer is both a yes and a no, since The Notwist’s eighth album is a site of conflict between subtle progression and unsubtle imitation, as well as a site of recognizably computerized indie that doesn’t simply limit its focus to the everyday manipulations and restrictions of mass society. But while it offers just enough in the way of individuality to stave off a disappearance within the impersonal grid of the received and the conventional, it still can’t quite fuse this into a coherent personality that transcends its inhibiting foundations.
The opening duo of tracks introduce these guiding fixations of Close to the Glass nicely. The electrocardiogram dotting of “Signals” ushers Markus Acher to the solemn pledges “We want to be you/ We want to be like you” and “We will walk within you,” evoking pedestrians and commuters marching in single file over doleful peaks of synthesizer and deflated organs. Similarly, during “Close to the Glass” and its skittish programming, he self-effacingly warns, “Don’t even think you will ever know/ If you are swimming in or outside the bowl,” as a sheet of aural vitrine spreads out of his disbelief in a life that isn’t simply a recital of some hegemonic script. And quite apart from being emotionally effective in conjuring a disillusioned world where personality and innovation are nothing more than questions of rearranging the furniture, this song can’t help but invoke the refurbishing talent of a band like Kid A-era Radiohead, as well as past versions of themselves.
But this is a little shortsighted, because Close to the Glass stretches its hands beyond the mere fact of civilization’s repressive uniformity, with songs like “7-Hour-Drive” and “Steppin’ In” branching out into how such mass social engineering might potentially affect and suffocate intimate human relationships (and that’s not to mention tracks like the innocuous indie of “Kong” that seem to have nothing to do with militarized conformity whatsoever). For “Steppin’ In,” plaintive strumming and mournful orchestration frame a synopsis of how a faceless agent’s “steppin’ in[to]” a certain interpersonal dynamic “fills the room like water” to the point where Acher “can’t breathe,” and where he’s forced to ask his unidentified companion, “Are you sleeping still?,” as if he can no longer tell the difference between an “authentic” human being and one who’s a passive cipher for manipulative institutions/authorities and how they want us to behave. This alienation is rendered in a less maudlin dialect via the buggy shoegaze of “7-Hour-Drive,” in which geographical distance is used as a metaphor for the ingrained psychological distance that often severs people from each other, and in which sustained and unnatural screeches of guitar and the unobtrusively anthemic chorus are preluded by the resigned complaint, “The streets cut through the heart/ Instead of bringing us together/ They will only keep us apart.”
If this mention of twitching shoegaze implies that Close to the Glass is more varied and distinctive than initially ventured, it should be mooted at this point that “7-Hour-Drive” is guilty of an unfortunate My Bloody Valentine tribute, with its central riff being a doppelganger for the I-II-IV progression of “When You Sleep,” a semblance that isn’t helped by the lathering of vibrato that swoons these chords as they essentially bury The Notwist under their own artistic foundations. And this instance of (probably unconscious) plagiarism is interestingly emblematic of the LP as a whole, since despite its glaring mimesis, the song is tempered with enough deviant, postmodern embellishments to save it from being a depersonalized reproduction/cover version of some now industrialized model. And the same applies to the album as a whole, since it houses melancholic explorations such as “Lineri” and the cyber fluttering of “Into Another Tune” that are as insinuating as anything the German quartet has teased out of its 25 years of enmeshed existence.
And if Close to the Glass is to be remembered as another work about the individual as a constrained construct of an over-rationalized and bureaucratized domain, then it’s safe to say that The Notwist skillfully evoke the sense of isolation and estrangement that must follow from being unable to relate to others except through the mediation of an econo-centric system, through protocols and proscriptions that adulate economic and civil efficiency over human closeness and openness. But at the same time, its predominant mood is possible only through the matrix of past music and past experience it invokes, a matrix whose grip has therefore been extended, covering not only The Notwist with its widening monoculture, but also ourselves.