Nootropics are cognitive enhancing drugs, some designed specifically to enhance memory. It’s a timely name for an album; so many indie acts nowadays are tackling notions of nostalgia and memory, be it through sonic soundscapes or with Tumblrs filled with hazy Instagrams. It’s the world slowly coming to grips with a new reality where everything can be half-remembered and happily bathed in a reverb splash. We’re led to believe that technology is the new nootropic, yet a computer is as fickle as a brain. It distorts, misfires, adds, and erases with the complicity of the user. Everyone is their own curator with powerful tools at their disposal
It’s weird to think of Lower Dens’ Jana Hunter—a former “freak folk” bard who’s as soft-spoken as her early music—using this sort of omnipotent force. Yet even in her acoustic days, she refracted her own worldview through a reel-to-reel recorder, recreating a bygone era of folkies in her very own bedroom. On 2010’s Twin-Hand Movement, Lower Dens’ debut, Hunter took these skeletal constructions and added meat to the bone. Now, with Nootropics, those creatures have taken flight as ghosts. Lower Dens are done exploring the (mostly) golden memories of Twin-Hand. Instead, they’re looking towards a man-as-machine future, skittering back and forth like a partially fried CPU.
Part of what informs the overall gloomy atmosphere is the band’s very real place within the indie hierarchy. They are a working band in every sense of the word, having been on the road nearly nonstop since the completion of Twin-Hand. They’re traveling to nearly every corner of the country, yet communication is artificial—loved ones are contacted through email and phone, with snippets of conversations here and there.
Hunter reportedly wrote most of the album on a keyboard in the back of the van. Consequently, there’s a sense of high-speed isolation: the world moves by, but you’re stuck in the same seat. It’s reflected in songs like “Brains,” Lower Dens’ krautrock workout that turns itself inside out but ends up at the same point. “In The End Is The Beginning” is more explicit, but takes twelve exhausted minutes to slowly unravel. The world ends not with a bang, but with a whimper.
Twin-Hand Movement partially made its mark with a rhythmic heft that underpinned the band’s psych scrawls. Here the drums are muted, dull as fingers tapping on a keyboard. Even as the group sprawls outward, there’s that nagging sense of claustrophobia knocking at the door. In the case of “Lamb,” the percussive stabs puncture holes in Hunter’s aerial flight. The song spirals back to earth, its feet fast but its head swimming in molasses.
The soupy textures are largely achieved through whirring keyboards and synthesizers instead of the band’s past dual-guitar construction. The chiming melodic arpeggios on “Alphabet” and the watery sounds on “Propagation” show the breadth of these electronic details. Most effective is the pseudo-religious “Nova Anthem” where Hunter floats on a bed of church organs. While the words are hard to decipher on most of the record, her voice is one of the few instruments in focus. She’s relying less on the smoke-and-mirrors of Twin-Hand, bearing more than a passing resemblance to Beach House’s Victoria Legrand. But Hunter draws a definitive line back to her bedroom folk days. Even with the symphonies of sound behind her, she’s laid bare.
Lower Dens get a lot of mileage out of exploring this sense of future shock, and they’re one of the few bands around today that capture the anxiety and unease without sounding too maudlin. Still, what’s missing is the meditative joy they achieved in their rockier moments. The irony of the album’s title is that it’s hard to recall a single melody after it finishes. It’s almost permanently stuck in the present-tense, constantly cycling around the same loop over and over and over.