Several years ago, Ian Richard Devaney had a musical epiphany.
The Nation of Language frontman and chief songwriter was idling around and heard a snippet of “Electricity,” the 1979 synth pop single from Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. A beloved song from his childhood, Devaney hadn’t heard the tune in years and he was inspired by, well, just how amateurish it sounded.
“It had this great reckless charm to it,” said Devaney, whose band will play at Bimbo’s 365 on March 22. “It was very imprecise and felt kind of unprofessional, and that really spoke to me. Like, I don’t really know anything about synths, and it kind of sounds like these guys don’t know anything either, as least at this moment in their career. And I started thinking, ‘Maybe I can do this, too.’”
This happened when Devaney was winding down his involvement with the Static Jacks, an indie rock group which specialized in an earnest and untidy aesthetic that defined so many bands of the late aughts and early 2010s era — when emotional acuity, not technical prowess, was prized. Looking to convey the same sense of immediacy and accessibility, Devaney began exploring a keyboard-heavy synth group specializing in electronic pop hooks.
Devaney first tinkered with simple keyboard sounds, and eventually enlisted his partner Adrianne Noell and former Static Jacks bandmate Michael Sue-Poi to form Nation of Language in 2016. Devaney said he viewed the band more as a collective than a set group (Sue-Poi is not taking part in the current tour, for example).
“In those early days of the band, it was just basically a series of friends helping me out,” said Devaney. “So, I wanted to write parts that were so simple anyone could step in on the synth and join the band if they wanted to. … I didn’t want to over-complicate things or make it so you’d have to be a synthesizer scientist or something.”
While Nation of Language songs may seem simple at first blush, each track evinces a richly emotional energy. Take, for example, “Wounds of Love” from the group’s 2021 album “A Way Forward.” The track starts with a couple of kids-bop keyboard moments, then quickly evolves into a stirring paean to heartbreak, elevated by Devaney’s honeyed vocals and plaintive musings: “Can I ever get past the wounds of love?/No.” Like most Nation of Language songs, this one features pathos in a deceptively simple package.
Of course, what makes this dichotomy work is the band’s penchant for writing unstoppable pop hooks. “A Way Forward” is stuffed with great synthpop earworms. (The band’s debut, “Introduction, Presence” which came out in 2020, is also a masterpiece.) “Across That Fine Line” is a digital krautrock masterpiece, evoking the best elements of Kraftwerk’s propulsive dynamism; “This Fractured Mind” is a cacophony of ambient New Order melodies; and “Whatever You Want” recalls all the soaring and triumphal pop songs of the ‘80s.
Like his forebears, Devaney writes songs with a precise ear for movement and restless motion. His songs perfect for the Peloton, or perhaps speeding out of The City in your car, watching the lights of the skyscrapers fade away into the darkness of the exurbs. This is not an accident — the Nation of Language catalog is filled with song titles like “The Motorist,” “Automobile” and “The Grey Commute.”
“I always loved how Kraftwerk talked about modes of transportation so much, and I thought it was so cool how the music worked with that concept,” said Devaney. “I kind of look at the first album as my driving album and the second one as my train album, but they are both about having that form and function line up. I want to have the things I reference in the song match what the music is doing.”
Driving and transit are perfect environments for Nation of Language songs. You might find yourselves miles from home, carried along by simple melodies of your travelling soundtrack. Fortunately, there are few better bands to get lost with than Nation of Language.
IF YOU GO:
Nation of Language w/Glove
Where: Bimbo’s 365 Club, 1025 Columbus Avenue, S.F.
When: 8 p.m., Tuesday, March 22
Contact: (415) 474-0365, bimbos365club.com