Nootropics are ‘smart drugs’ that are supposed to improve, intelligence, attention and concentration. Nootropics is an album by Lower Dens that whilst certainly intelligent, ultimately fails to hold the listener’s attention or concentration. Lower Dens trade heavily in mood, but these songs lack the emotional heft to leave a lasting impression. Lower Dens bring a kind of savant-like focus – the stereotypical obsession with a particular idea. Mistaking the elegance of machine tool motorik for, mechanical repetition, stripping it and reducing it down to a characterless cycle, lacking heart and soul. A slow unfolding of aural sublimation, the gradual removal, or over polishing of the sonic palette leaves a record sounds that sounds absent.
The album starts strongly – Alphabet Song’s lovely slide guitar playing wonderful counterbalance to shuffling, anxious drums. Jana Hunter’s vocals, seductively drawn out and building to flurried up tempo activity are beguiling. Second track, Brains makes good use of motorik rhythms, beneath a gentle siren of a guitar line, building towards anthemic, insistently euphoric vocals.
When Stem picks up where Brains leaves off, replacing the vocals with the urgent rising tones of an organ, we’re lulled into a false sense of security, revealed as essentially a lovely coda to the good bit of the album. We struggle to hear where tracks end and begin. Here it is a strength in transition, but as the album progresses cool detachment imposes itself, the subtle but shifting moods become less distinct. Nootropics slumps – occasionally hinting at its strengths – before petering out, eventually dragging interminably.
On Propagation Hunter’s smoky, breathy vocals seem hollow somehow, lacking the soul and desperate urgency of, say Beach House. Here held notes, extended syllables feel almost dirge-like. Few of these tacks build to any real peaks, or crescendos, eliding start and finish. Left with few landmarks to guide, or grab us. Lamb and Candy bring fleeting relief, the first’s is all soaring vocals over snapping, slicing drums, the latter is one of the more fully formed songs here, a narrative thread holds the ear and leads us, where for the most part Nootropics seems content to impress upon the listener a blanket of mood punctuated by lyrical vignettes.
Lion in Winter Pt.1 and Pt.2 are needlessly split in two, aimless and over long, with no real pay off. Nova Anthem does little to lift the second half of the album from its torpor, while In the End is the Beginning’s 12min extended work out is perhaps the best summation of Nootropics faults, punctuated with shards of noise, cold and ultimately too boring to hold interest long enough in its shifting islands of sound.
At its best Lower Dens inject some of the mournful euphoria of Arcade Fire, or the morbid funk of Joy Division, but increasingly cool, almost clinical detachment reaps diminishing returns. Rather than carrying the listener on its currents, or even washing over them with beauty, instead Nootropics is more akin to occasionally being gently bumped in to, ultimately anonymous in between times.