Nootropics are drugs that enhance cognitive functions such as concentration, memory, and attention span. According to Lower Dens, their album title refers to the band’s interest in transhumanismthe use of technology to extend human capabilities. Sure, drugs have been inexorably tied to the inspiration, enjoyment, or the end of music for decades, but smart pills? That’s a new one. In any case, for Baltimore’s Lower Dens, it fits.
Kraftwerk pushed music technology to drive the point home of every album’s theme, such as the monotonous feeling to the experience of driving on the Autobahn’s namesake, or that of man as a machine of production, stipped of any personality or humanity on Man-Machine. Similarly, Lower Dens are using their expanded grandness in scope to create a specific atmosphere for Nootropics. Take “Lamb” and “Proagation”, for example. Here Lower Dens utilize motorik beats, droning guitar noise, and the barely-there whispers of Jana Hunter to build a mood of fearful claustrophobia. Lead single Brains is surprisingly uptempo, but its motorik beat just raises the urgency to overwhelming levels. That panicked feeling when uncertainty takes control and time distorts? It’s captured in musical form in the beast that is Brains.
These Krautrock stylings are fully unleashed on 12 minute closer “In the End Is the Beginning”, and the panicked sensation of Nootropics gives way to catharsis as the surrealism intensifies to the point at which change is inevitable. If neighbors and former tour mates Beach House are dream pop, then with Nootropics, Lower Dens are nightmare pop.
Despite the inescapable eeriness and portentous nature of the album, Nootropics is not a completely bleak affair. Candy is as sweet as its name infers, while Nova Anthem illustrates how adept Lower Dens are at building towards something beautiful in their concentrated, but intense manner. As desirable and necessary as betterment is, the quest for perfection can be dehumanizing when gone too far. The terror lies in realizing one’s own detachment from humanity, and Nootropics sounds like a warning to never lose focus on the latter half of transhumanism.
Essential Tracks: “Brains”, “Nova Anthem”
Feature artwork by Mike Zell.