Some albums are constructed through meticulous planning and and granular focus on songwriting. Others are improvised, recorded in an afternoon. The Notwist’s 2002 album Neon Golden is fascinating because it used both of the above approaches.
Initially a hard-driving, guitar-driven band, the Notwist had evolved significantly through the 1990s, and by the turn of the century their sound fell somewhere between Wilco, Folk Implosion, and post-OK Computer Radiohead.
The tracks on Neon Golden were the result of an interesting recipe. The first step was pure improvisation. Many of the songs are built around riffs that have a distinct improvisational quality to them – a feeling of fingers wandering freely across a piano keyboard, or the frets of a guitar. The second step was a long post-production period, in which layers of samples and electronic elements were added. The final step was to scale back all that electronic decoration, leaving only what was necessary to maintain the heart of the music.
The net result of this process is an album that feels understated but significant. Like a secret whose importance isn’t fully understood by the person speaking it. To quote one reviewer:
Neon Golden pulls away from you, murmuring quietly to itself with a lonesome elusiveness that compels you to lean into it, aching to hear what it has to say, even though it appears not to be speaking to you.
What makes this a beautiful song:
1. The repeating seven-note melody, whose character changes depending on the chords underneath it.
2. The vocal melody keeps coming back to a descending 5-4-3-2-1 tone sequence, on the words “fail with consequence, lose with eloquence” and “leave me paralyzed.” This motif re-appears in at least one other track on the album, and has a certain calming quality to it.
3. At 2:58, it moves into a hesitant bridge so instrumentally sparse it feels like something is missing. We’re left to guess at what might have inhabited that space before the editing was finished.
Recommended listening activity:
Driving on back roads to get somewhere you normally reach by highway.