Why is the Notwist’s 2008 The Devil, You + Me one of my favorite records? Imagine a record whose lyrics revolve around how limited the solar system feels; a record which employs a goddamn full orchestra on some of its tracks; a record made by wonky, over-the-hill Germans whose idea of a good time, one would guess, would be putting down Radiohead for being insufficiently ambiguous, not to mention too loud. Not the kind of record a person like me, a lover of the simpler and more abandoned joys of P J Harvey, Lefty Frizzell, and Gilberto Gil, would be able to stand, right?
I think it’s because the Notwist make cold music with warmth, electronic music with acoustic instruments, gloomy music with moments of ecstasy and humor ("I won't sing hilarious" is a very funny line). The Devil, You + Me gets close to being pretentious at times, but always pulls back from that with its close attention to real-life detail and its silly accents. It never gets either too aimless nor too deliberately spooky, both traps this kind of music could easily fall into. It almost completely avoids musical and lyrical clichés, which I find remarkable. And it's real purty too.
Take the album’s closing track, “Gone Gone Gone,” for example. At only 2:09, it’s magically succinct, opening with just acoustic guitar and voice, with some piano, bass, and drums entering soon; then come the synths, the guitars, the phlanged background vocals—and before you know it, it’s over. And what’s it about? When the end comes, say goodbye to everyone, because they won’t let you go alone, and you won’t, because you’ll be surrounded by others who’ll likewise protect you, including me, and I’ll never let you go period. The song develops both musically and lyrically, taking you on a very subtle and short trip from one meaning (awfulness) to another (comfort). And it sticks in your head.
The Notwist made us wait six years for The Devil, You + Me after their inestimable Neon Golden, another one of my favorite records. They’ve made us wait almost as long again, and perhaps a new Notwist album will never come. I don’t know; I can only hope that the next, if one comes, will be as good as this. The Devil, You + Me takes me to a place that’s simultaneously cosmically alien and as familiar as the kitchen tables and legal pads they sing about in the opening track: a place of unearthly yet very earthly beauty.