Identity has always been a key feature of Nervus’ music. The struggles with gender dysphoria experienced by vocalist / guitarist Em Foster were the focal point of the band’s 2016 album Permanent Rainbow, a mightily real but charming and infectious indie-punk album that turned those turbulent personal experiences into something truly wonderful. Since then, Nervus have rightfully become one of UK rock’s shining lights, with Foster’s brutal honesty and straight-talking demeanour seeing her become something of an icon in her own right. In a society where, on the whole, the acceptance of transgender people continues to be disparaged and ignored, it takes a band like Nervus to really set the record straight with hard-hitting populism.
But of course, it’s not as if that societal judgement doesn’t have an impact, and on Everything Dies, it’s the source of Foster’s discomfort that was once in her own head on Permanent Rainbow. Fittingly though, Everything Dies feels like Nervus upping the stakes from their last effort, bigger and more exciting while keeping such an intensely personal narrative that feels slaved over in every syllable. Couple that with melodic punk instrumentation that’s been polished and inflated to Creeper levels of brilliant, and Everything Dies is honestly hard to top as far as alt-rock goes, and in a year that’s already offered so much great material in that genre alone, that says a lot.
It’s easy to explain why as well, with Nervus having such a level of gravity in their writing that most bands could never even strive towards, all through Foster’s strident, rich vocals as the album is broken down into three sections – birth, life and death – to address the regimented views of gender in each and the expectations that come attached. And from opener Congratulations, where an artificially gendered society puts such an onus on “normality” that it prevents a person from being who they really are, Foster’s approach to writing is a lot wider to represent the experiences of an entire community rather than just her own. And that’s where the beauty of Everything Dies really lies, in that there’s a sense of universality in the writing, but never in the sense that it becomes vapid and underwritten. It clearly comes from a very personal place, but looking at the thoughts and feelings actually put onto wax – the onset of discomfort and dysphoria on Recycled Air; the added pressure and confusion from a censorious society on It Follows and The Way Back; the overwhelming elation at finding someone accepting and willing to learn on Medicine – these are the same experiences that so many other transgender and non-binary people have had, and told with the weight and potency as they are here, Nervus operate in a bracing manner that’s hard to replicate.
It doesn’t make the instrumentation any less important, but it’s often a feature of highly personal or deep albums like this that lyrics will take the top billing. Hence, that’s why there’s nothing particularly spectacular about the direction that Everything Dies takes on its own, largely comprised of super-melodic indie-punk tones augmented by more conventional punk and alt-rock for a bit more punch and urgency. And yes, with a lot of the sweeping, gutsy guitars and polished pianos, particularly on a track like Sick, Sad World, there’s a sense of layered theatricality that’s quite reminiscent of Creeper on Eternity, In Your Arms. But that’s not even on the same planet as being a bad thing, and just like that album, Everything Dies is borderline masterful in its weaving of lyrical content with a complementary instrumental canvas to wholly flesh each piece out. So while Skin plays with darker, melancholic tones, the desire for a new start on Nobody Loses All The Time and Sick, Sad World are more exuberant and outwardly anthemic, and celebration of the life of a friend who’s passed away on Hold Tight captures wistfulness in its pianos and pairs it with an aura of positivity from the brighter guitars. Not a moment of this album feels wasted or out of place; it’s an entirely cohesive work that never needs frills to entice or enrapture.
And thus, Everything Dies is Nervus’ colossal next step into entering the pantheon of Britrock’s new wave that’s become such a driving force in rock’s sea change over the last couple of years. But not since Creeper’s debut has an album emerged with such resonant weight and power, not an iota of which goes to waste at any point. The socially conscious angle is as moving as it is enlightening, made even better by instrumentation that’s textured and layered, and ultimately arrives as a near-perfect package of indie-punk and alt-rock in 2018. If there’s one band who could very easily take over the world – and make a difference while doing it – Nervus would be a pretty safe bet at this point.
For fans of: Creeper, Milk Teeth, Bellevue Days
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Everything Dies’ by Nervus is released on 9th March on Big Scary Monsters.