The Notwist - The Devil, You + Me

George Bass 10/05/2008

Rating: 4/5

Play this album forty times before judgement - it's only fair; it took seventeen hundred times that long to conceive it. Bringing down the zeroes and carrying the four shows you the score right there: six years is a long time in music, longer than all but the most generous piece of string. If you're The Blue Nile, it's the distance to the services on the journey between records. If you're Aphex Twin, it's your total mp3 runtime once you lay every track end to end. Bavarian laptop choristers Martin Gretschmann, Markus Acher and brother Mika represent the third leg of this circuit, airing their Notwist moniker for the first time proper since Neon Golden - the 2002 sleeper hit that raised the bar on electronic indie like a Colour Sergeant with a very high paystick. Having trailed material on tour as well as recording under a posse of side-projects (13 & God, Tied & Tickled Trio, Rod Jane & Freddy [needs verification]), the band now return to compete in the genre they helped fuel eighty months ago, poised rock-steady on a grid that's been filling in the meanwhile with bitey imitators. Can they convince a nation still smarting from the last Ulrich Schnauss LP that it's time to uncork the bolly? Well, The Devil... has certainly been in tinkering for a long time, and plenty of Chinese whispers have done the rounds on the relevant websites - the electrics have gone/they've taken up busking/the drummer's chained up in the basement. The writing on the wall claims that Team Notwist have chucked away their winning formula of bonding bedsit twee with hard disk epiphanies, and have now chosen other furrows to plough. That's not wholly accurate, but you should definitely tread carefully if you're one of those people whose first action upon playing Grand Theft Auto IV was to repeatedly exclaim “How come they binned the jetpack?”

Regardless of its jink in direction, it's certainly a prudent decision that the band use the subdued Good Lies as the opening flag for their eleven-piece set, acting as a crystal ball for the shape of the LP and confirming the rumours that The Notwist have slid one percent back to their metal origins. No hoarse roars or flailing leather here, though - just a gentle emphasis of the guitars and bass over their android accompaniments to form a strangely superb song about regret versus resolve. Markus Acher's voice is as blue and Germanic as ever, scooting round the melodies like a hoverfly as he explores a more diverse range of chords than he attempted on the band's last record. Gravity is a song crying out to be used in the upcoming WipeOut rehash, blending Snare-era Looper with Underworld's Glam Bucket, and the fey but forlorn Alphabet is three minutes of UFO poetry; all glitchy strumming and collapsed pylons sparking. The ease with which the band fuse these far flung corners of ideas is still smooth to to the point of invisible, and their selection of which glitch or twang to use when decorating Acher's introverted vocal revelations hints at a Mensa-ready brainpower. Chances are they've been eating fish since before they were teething.

There's no doubt that the continent has been producing alt-acoustic albums in droves over the year or so, and at times The Devil...'s folky absorption of live instruments feels like a reaction to their national indie palette, as if they've swallowed the Morr Music label with a drop of phal and are now sweating it back to the fans. That distinct Notwist signature is what marks every track as their own, though, and the time here is spent largely in analysis rather than mimicry. White Town's A Week Next June gets reshot in drowsy rapeseed sepia for Gloomy Planets, the dust cleared away by shimmering pop combines, and Sleep fidgets its way through some angsty bedridden chill, tossing and turning from the electric Rorschach skulking in the half-light. The record's arguable headturner crops up much earlier in the pecking order, however, chattering through your speakers on first single Where In This World, where brass anxiety and running-to-the-hospital strings add a silvery zest to the vocals (apparently, the band have already revealed they wrote a lot of their friends' bad-luck stories into the album's wordplay). Luckily every frown has its foil, and Gone Gone Gone sees them signing off in sluggish mischief, Acher's plea of 'I will never let you go' offset with the gentle chant of 'Gone/Gone/Gone'. It's like a leprechaun deprived of his pot of gold who's started speaking In Rainbows. To be sure.

It's easy to be impatient with any album that braves a change in direction, especially in the face of such a lengthy hibernation and lauded last submission as is the case here. You're only as good as your last job etc., etc., and perhaps opinions on The Devil, You + Me would be less polarised if it were released amidst icy October leaves instead of the prehistoric heatwave currently baking the landscape. Seasonal anomalies aside, though, there's no denying the hidden alchemy in the roots of The Notwist's songwriting - they bring ideas to the table, ideas turn to ingots. According to the die-hards who've already snaffled the leak, to liken this record to its predecessor is to compare Blu-Ray Casino Royale to vintage GoldenEye. They're right, of course, but bear in mind what they really mean is GoldenEye for the N64. And that's a tough one for most people to get over.